What’s in a Name?

Naming a character is always a challenge. I’ve tried all sorts of methods — from scrambling names from an old address book to finding names in works of literature. I’ve come to the conclusion that I need different M.O.s (modus operandi) for different characters.

Although I’ve been known to “base” characters on real people, until very recently I never named a character after that person. The first, and so far only, exception is the bartender named Lisa in my almost-ready-to-e-publish “The Strange Case of Dr. Hyde.” I needed a hotel bar for certain pivotal scenes in the story and, since I have a bartender friend, I did my research at her lobby bar in a midtown hotel. I watched how she interacted with regulars and how she facilitated pleasant conversations AND how she skillfully helped some customers escape the clutches of a boring or obnoxious patron. I asked Lisa’s permission to the call the bartender Lisa, and she agreed.

Some of my name games are strategic. Names are often rooted in specific times, places and ethnicities. So a current project, peopled with Argentine immigrant characters, has a cast list that includes: Pablo, Hector, Marissa, Rosa, etc. One of the things New York and Buenos Aires have in common are names that mix a first name from one background with a family name from another — so there’s a Jorge (George in Spanish) Buonocore (good heart in Italian) and an Alejandra (Alexandra in Spanish) Jacobs (Jewish family name), among the characters. In New York I know tons of people with English first names and Chinese last names, Irish first names and Jewish last names and more mixes.

In addition, there are cultural and religious traditions concerning “recycling” names. In some traditions a child is named for a deceased loved one and other cultures honor living relatives. I remember an Irish family where most of the men were named John or Martin. The girls were Mary Ellen, Mary Alice, Mary Beth — you get the picture.

Time is also an important factor in choosing a name. I only had two aunts and both of them were named Edith. A coincidence? Not really. My father’s older sister and the wife of my mother’s older brother were both born in the early 1920s and were both named after Edith Cavell — a hero of WWI. She was a British nurse working in a hospital in occupied Belgium and was executed by a German firing squad after having been found guilty of aiding the escape of allied injured soldiers in her care. A LOT of little girls in Great Britain and the U.S. were named after Edith Cavell in the years following the First World War.

Names migrate through time, rising and falling out of fashion and sometimes popping up in different ethnic groups. My dad’s name, Marvin, was popular in Jewish families of his generation, but if you say the name Marvin to someone my age they’ll think about Marvin Haggler, Marvin Lewis, Marvin Jones or Marvin Gaye. I didn’t grow up with any girls named Sophia, Emma, Isabella, Olivia or Ava — the top five girls names of 2013. Everyone seemed to be named Nancy, Susan, Robin, Beth or Wendy — none of which made the top 100 names in the Social Security administration’s list as of this May.

Some names are stories. My name is definitely a story. Long before my parents met, my mom saw a production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Candida” with a young and gorgeous Marlon Brando playing the romantic, young poet who falls in love with Candida. When my mom was pregnant with me she read a mystery by Patricia Wentworth with a heroine named Candida and that reminded her of that wonderful production of the Shaw play. (Yes, Candy is short for Candida.) A few years ago, my mom and I were attending a mystery conference and I found hardcover copy of that particular Patricia Wentworth for a Mother’s Day present.

Finding the right name can be an adventure.


  1. I tend to be pretty horrible with names. I rarely use them in my daily life. I did find a great feature on scrivener a while back though. Their is a name generator buried in the files of the program. It is fairly detailed as far as time periods and such go. Of course in my day to day writing I forget that it’s there and go back to using the same crappy names I always use.

  2. For some reason, names for characters just seem to pop into my head and ‘stick’. That said though, I did trawl through my Vokht to English dictionary for appropriate names for the main characters. As these names are ‘secret’, they could reflect some characteristic the character aspired to or thought they had. As the dictionary is limited to a few hundred words or word roots, that was quite hard.

    • Candy

      There seems to be a big difference between naming characters in fantasy or science fiction, and naming characters in other genres. I envy your ability to CREATE an entire lexicon and the names that flow from it naturally.

      In a mystery, suspense thrillers, horror or romance, the names of the characters are best when they reflect a real world sensibility. This means being aware of the time, place and heritage and any special circumstances of how that characters got his or her name.

      I’ve often talked to my friends about how they go their names and how they’ve named their children. There is often a direct tie to family or heritage. Sometimes names are just in the air. When my friend named her son Zachary, she had no idea that there would be 5 in his kindergarten class. It was a hugely popular name at that moment. I grew up with tons of boys named Michael, David, Josh, Jeff and Robert. I didn’t meet a single Zac until Diane named her son and now… Interesting.

      • Talk about naming children, mine do have stories. My first daughter took her middle name from my wife’s paternal grandmother. She was alive before that daughter was born but died shortly after. Always called my daughter her namesake.

        For my second daughter we were stuck on what to call her. The first name we had ready was stolen by my brother for his second daughter (after he and his wife poo pooed the name) that child was born on my birthday too.

        We thought about my grand mother’s name for her. At the time my wife liked the name Augusta but if we followed the pattern she would have been named Augusta Georgia (Georgia being my grandmother’s name). Then she thought she liked the name Hilary. My first daughter is Chelsea. I refuse to bring that combination into my house.

        Finally, my daughter’s name came to us out of the blue. It wasn’t till months after she was born that we discovered she had the shortened form of my paternal grandmother’s name along with a similar middle name. Until that time I had never heard my grandmother’s name. Never met her or anything. She was gone long before I was born.

        We figured it was a sign from the afterlife or something.

        • Candy

          What great stories about your daughters’ names.

          Messages from the afterlife, heritage, history & a mini family feud!

      • Yeah real world names have to reflect their era. We don’t normally think of names as being culturally driven but it’s true. I name my daughter after one of my favourite 1940’s actresses so when I had a girl, naming her was easy. I’m really glad she wasn’t a boy because I was leaning towards Etienne for a boy. It sounds great in French but the poor kid would have ended up being called ET at school. 😉

        • Candy

          Having coped with both the obvious Candy is Dandy etc. AND the candida with a small C (the yeast)… I’m happy that you were sensitive to the nickname potential. I think about that for characters, too. Did Mom & Dad realize where that name could lead?

  3. I’ve been known to browse census files where the popularity of names for boys and girls gets ranked from year to year. Then I’ll go to sites that give the meanings behind names. I do tend to pick names whose meanings relate to a significant character trait (at least for my novel, but not for short stories). Months ago, when I was still toying with the idea of a modern-day vampire story, I came up with a character named Liam Ward. Liam means determined guardian or protector and Ward also means to guard. Never say never, but I probably won’t try to write a vampire story, but I still think it’s a great name for a character.

    • Candy

      It’s an excellent name for a character! And Liam could have a very interesting backstory… Irish heritage or adopted by a family that named him. Lots of possibilities.

      I’ve always been interested in people who have changed their names and why. The new mayor of NYC (as of yesterday’s election) took his mother’s maiden name as a young man. His father was a very troubled WWII veteran, an alcoholic etc. and he was not a big presence in DeBlasio’s life as a child and teen. He identified with his mother’s family and eventually made it official.

      Years ago, I knew a woman named Eleanor — a perfectly fine, if old-fashioned name that happens to be my mother’s name — but this Eleanor legally changed it to Tommy (maybe it was Tommie… I don’t remember). She really hated being named Eleanor. My mom, at the age of 16, added an E at the end of her name so she is ELEANORE — causes all sorts of wacky problems.