Thursday, April 29, 2010

What's In A Name?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Every author of fiction knows that Shakespeare was dead wrong about this, at least when it comes to naming characters. We may agonize over our hero or heroine’s name, or it may come to us in a flash of inspiration, but it just has to be right. Changing a name once chosen is no trifling matter. Sometimes a character clings to a name a stubbornly as we do to our own.

Every author has their own way of choosing names. Baby name books, mythology, online lists of names from different languages and ethnic backgrounds, there’s no shortage of places to look. I know one author of historicals set in American Colonial times, who went through military and census records to find names that fit the time period. For historicals, names can’t sound too modern. Fantasy and paranormal writers face a different set of challenges in creating names that suit the world they’ve created. Sam and Frodo, Boromir and Faramir, Aragorn and Arwen…sound familiar?

Personally, I borrow or steal any name that appeals to me and mix and match it with a new surname. That’s how I came up with Trey, Beth, Sidonie, Rochelle and Colin. Sidonie – my personal favorite – was the name of the French author Collette’s mother. I borrowed Trey from a former student of mine who had Southern roots. I found the name McShannon in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s journals and lifted it as well. Surette is a common Acadian surname, so I used it for the French branch of Trey and Chelle’s family tree. As for Martin Rainnie, his name just came to me without any thought at all.

In romantic fiction, the hero’s name is a very big deal. So what makes a name appealing to the opposite sex? An article written by Michael Hopkins, published in 2004 on , describes the results of a study done by MIT researcher Amy Perfors. According to this study, men’s names are sexiest when they contain strong consonants like K and B along with vowel sounds made at the front of the mouth, like ‘e’ or ‘I’. Mike and Zeke trump Paul or Tom. For women, the opposite is true: names with ‘round’ vowel sounds, like Laura, are most appealing. Of course, cultural factors play a large part. Some names are considered masculine and others feminine. That has changed over time. The name Shirley was considered masculine in Victorian times, while now it’s thought of as feminine.

I love old-fashioned names. Ethan, Galen, Nathan, Daniel, and Matthew are among my favorites for men. Emily, Sarah, Elizabeth, Faith, Rachael are names I like for women. I also like short, snappy names like Kate and Ruth, Ben and Zeke. I’ve never really cared for long names.

I ran into a bit of a sticky name situation with McShannon’s Chance. Without realizing it, I wrote three male secondary characters whose names all began with ‘N’ – Nathan Munroe (Nate), Neil Garrett, and Nolan Kinsley. Nate, Trey’s childhood nemesis, flatly refused to budge on the issue. Nathan he was and Nathan he would remain, world without end, amen. I really didn’t dare approach Neil about it. He keeps a loaded shotgun under his bar and rents the back rooms of his saloon to loose women. Not going there. Nolan, though, was an easy-going sort, comfortable enough in his skin to trust that I would only change his name, not him. So, Nolan became Logan – a name I borrowed from another student. Logan Kinsley has a nice sound, I think. Maybe some day I’ll reward him by writing about his adventures as a young man.

One of the things I love most about writing is having a character take shape and become real in my mind. Names are a big part of that. If you write, I’m curious to hear how you name your characters. What are your favorite masculine and feminine names? Why?


  1. I had a similar problem with two male 'A' names in a screenplay I shot in university. My screenwriting class immediately nailed me on that one. Arlen, the main character, kept his name. Abner, the villain, got changed to Luther.

    I tend to love long, old-fashioned names that have fallen out of use. Like Edwina, Adelaide, Lillian, Isobel and Jocelyne. For men I adore UK names like Cormac, Geoffrey and Oliver, and Russian names like Alexi, Maxim and Dmitri.

  2. Hi Julia! Loved your music picks this week. I like Celtic names too - Connor, Morgan, Riley, Patrick. I always associate Russian names with hockey rather than literature - Vladislav Tretiak comes to mind. Of course, I'm watching hockey as I type this. Go Habs Go! (Did I say that? Egad, I'm a Leafs fan.)

  3. I love older names too. Galen, Jacob, Gideon. I've used Connor and Devlin. For my heroines I'm the same way. I like older names for the historicals, but I usually mix it up a bit with the YAs and contemps. A lot of times I'll look for a name that's meaning captures my character's personality.

  4. I know what you mean, Kelly. Some names just suit certain characters, and some have fascinating meanings.

  5. Great post on names. In my first attempt at a novel, I had everyone's names, first and last, beginning with M! Like you, some had to stay, but others I was able to come up with something I (and they) were happy with.