26 August, 2010

The Name Game

Shirley, Shirley bo Birley Bonana fanna fo Firley Fee fy mo Mirley, Shirley!

Can a name make or break your mystery?  Certainly the title can have a huge impact on sales, but what about the actual names of the characters? 

Sure we read a book for the plot, the personalities, the tone, the language,  but let's be honest, we are influenced by things like setting, era and yes, names.

For better or for worse, certain "types" are associated with certain names, whether through association with someone we know personally, or someone we've read/heard about.  I doubt that anyone would christen their handsome, swashbuckling hero with the name Leroy or Arnold, or their ravishingly beautiful heroine, Brunhilda because of the mental images those names evoke for most readers.  Names also date characters.  Tiffany, Destiny and Troy are modern; Mildred, Clotilda and Cedric are dated. The era is which your story is set may, to some degree, dictate the names available for your characters.  It's hard to imagine a Regency bodice-ripper with a duchess named Fantasia.

Ethic or regional origin can be shown (not told) with a name: Paddy Paderewski, Sean O'Flaherty; Gina Abbruzzi, Billy Bob and Melinda Sue Hawkins.

Authors are faced with a dilemma when naming their characters.  You want a distinctive name, preferably one that isn't associate with another writer's protagonist, but the name has to be appropriate and evoke the correct mental image.  Not as easy as it sounds.  Even minor characters should be names carefully, for much the same reason.  And where do we find the names.  I find myself using backs of envelopes and stray pieces of paper to jot down names from television credits, newspaper articles.  Friends tell me they've been know to pick a telephone directory page at random or check out an on-line baby/surname site ( www.babynames.com or www.names.mongbay.com ).  One writer relies on rosters from sporting events such as the Olympics or World Cup.

Sometimes I just mix and match first and last names of people I know. I recently wrote a short story, with a mild-aged "nebbish" at the center.  I called him Morty Latimer.  His shrewish wife was Shirley.  The Morty came from the TV show The Nanny, Shirley from a neighbour.  Obviously, I went with the stereotypical names.

You want the names to be memorable but not hard to remember.  Depending on your own experience or background, some names are easier to remember than others.  With characters called Foo See Luan, Foo Ah Lan, and Cheng Yuan Chun, or Giorurkas Seitaridis, Stelios Malezas and Christo Patsatzoglou, I'd need a cheat sheet just to keep them straight.

Sometimes the plot may dictate the names.  A character is obsessed with someone -- say Albert Einstein -- so she names her new-born daughter Alberta.  Or the plot requires three names often associated with each other, such as Emily, Anne and Charlotte (the Brontes, if you hadn't guessed).

For my current WIP, I wanted a name that meant something to me, was neutral in terms of association with others, and was neither modern nor old-fashioned.  I wanted my protagonist to have the same ethic background as I do.   My grandmother's maiden name was Kensing, which I decided would make a good first name, paired with a couple of obvious middle monikers.  Hence my auburn haired, freckled sleuth: Kensing Shannon Kelly Delaney.  And her cop love interest, Finnbar (Finn) O'Malley.  Can you picture them?

How do you choose your names?  Do they change from first draft to final?  How successful are authors at christening their character?

Try your skill at matching the following mystery characters to their non-sleuthing jobs:

  1. Magdalena Yoder         k. wife/mother
  2. Charlotte McNally        d.  home renovator
  3. Jacobia Tiptree             h. web designer
  4. Paula Holliday              g.  English professor
  5. Victoria Sinclair           c. caterer/minister's wife
  6. Hope Fairchild             j.  media exec/gardener
  7. Andrea Kendricks        l. advertising exec
  8. Cora Felton                 f. Investigative reporter
  9. Karen Pelletier            b,  librarian
  10. Avery Baker               e.  crossword puzzle guru
  11. Sarah Kelling              a. Money manager
  12. Agatha Raisin             i. Mennonite innkeeper

Answers: 1-i; 2-f; 3-a; 4-j; 5-b; 6-c; 7-h; 8-e; 9-g; 10-d; 11-k; 12 - l


  1. Names are extremely important to me. I work hard getting just the right names for my characters. I have to like the way they look in print (because I'll be typing it a billion times) and how it sounds (because I'll be reading it aloud at signings). I use the telephone book, magazines, newspapers--anything to give me real names. Nothing is worse than a made up sounding name. I never take the whole name; the first from one, the second from another. Although I did name a supporting character--a gay Jamaican barista-- Cashmere Funk, which is actually the name (Casimir)of a Polish biochemist.

  2. My wife and I bought a baby name book years ago when we had our first child. He's in college now, but I still use the book.