Thursday, July 9, 2009

Book Character Names - How do You Dream Them Up?

The one thing I never do is name a character after a real, live person - except for the times when I do.

Huh? you ask.

Let me explain: I'll give a character a real person's name - but NEVER the very same person's personality. Case in point: In my mystery, Second Time Around, a fellow appears at the end of the story and his name is Donald McHenry. I DO know a fellow named Donald McHenry - he's my 79 year old father. But he's nothing like the character in the book: a 55 year old CPA with a full head of curly dark hair. Well...okay...maybe the real DM is color-blind, just like the guy in the book...

All kidding aside, the first names - and sometimes even the full names - of people I know appear in my books, but never with the same personality types or occupations or physical characteristics. I am not the least bit interested in being sued for libel, slander, invasion of privacy, etc. In the case of the situation with my father, I had his blessing (read: permission). But in other cases, the people whose names I borrowed were thrilled: my friends and my children. I also only use these "borrowed" names for secondary or incidental characters. I do not use them for main characters. I've often thought of using the name of an old boyfriend as the murderer or, God forbid, the name of my ex-husband. But I think that's walking way too close to the line.

When it comes to naming main characters, I keep a number of things in mind:
  • Avoid using the same sound, or beginning letters: i.e. Jack and Joan; Barney and Bonnie
  • Avoid cutesy names: i.e. Jack and Jill; Pat and Mike
  • Avoid spellings that don't easily translate phonetically: i.e. Celenie or Siobhan
  • Use ethic names when appropriate
  • I tend to use one syllable first names for male protagonists, especially names with hard sounds: i.e. Jack, Ben
  • I tend to use two-syllable first names for female protagonists - this contrasts with the one syllable male protagonist names
  • I prefer Irish or Celtic names (strictly personal)
  • I prefer that first and last names have some common sounds--this works well for auditory readers: Lyn McLaren, Timmie Campbell
  • I prefer NOT to use overly unusual/uncommon names: i.e. Balthazar, Mordyce
How do you dream up the names of your characters?


  1. I name my characters after I've created them with a suitable name that also describes them somewhat as a person. Sometimes the name just pops up before I've even created the character, in which case I start creating from the name :).

  2. Good suggestions. Long ago, I had an editor who insisted I change a protagonist's name because it wasn't heroic enough (I'd given her the first name Edna after St. Vincent Millay, and I argued it was a very "heroic" name). But my editor insisted, I changed the name to Elizabeth, and readers loved that character (10 years later, I still get letters about that book). So the editor was right, and quite honestly, how many readers would have understood the Edna reference? Maybe not as many as I would have hoped.