What’s in a Name?

Kathleen DelaneyKathleen Delaney, author of Murder Half-Baked and other books, retired from real estate to pursue writing full time. She’s here today with her thoughts on selecting names for characters and how important the choices can be.

Murder by Syllabub, fifth in the Ellen McKenzie series, is available in bookstores now. PureBred Dead, the first in a new series, will be out in the spring of 2015.

Shakespeare was quite eloquent when he put those words in Juliet’s mouth, as was Romeo’s answer as he declares himself willing to give up his family name if it means they can be together. Name was all important, it identified who they were, who their families were, where they lived, and untimely why they died.

Names don’t seem to have the ability to inflame the way they did in Shakespeare’s time, or in the time of the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s. Today we pick other reasons to shoot each other. However, names still carry meaning. They still say something about who we are, who are parents are, and where we come from.

No one is more conscious of that than the writer of novels.

The name we give our characters is your introduction to him/her. It sets the picture of the character in your mind. If I introduce you to Maria Gonzales, you may assume that she speaks Spanish, comes from, or her parents come from, a country somewhere south of the US border, and that the story will somehow center around her ethnicity. This may be an extreme example, but you get the idea.

Novelists, as do movie makers, try to come up with names that evoke a common image in people’s heads. Not an easy task, as there are precious few names that produce the same image in every one. However, we try.

Sam Spade, for instance, just wouldn’t have had the same clout if he’d been called Evan Turnbull. Not that Evan isn’t a good name, but it lacks the grittiness Sam Spade evokes. Think of Scarlett O’Hara. Would you still picture the smoky sexuality, the ruthless desire to get what she wanted no matter what, if her name had been Mary? Or Judy?

I’ve always thought Stephanie Plum is a perfect name for that character. It’s cute but not too cute, a little sexy but not overly so, and doesn’t seem out of character when she’s called cupcake. Or babe. I don’t think it would work quite as well if she was a Hannah, however.

The setting for the story and the family background play a large part in choosing a character’s name. You wouldn’t expect the male lead in a book featuring an Amish family to be named Cody. Or the girl Cassidy. However, you wouldn’t be surprised if Cassidy turned up in San Francisco, or Cody ran a cattle ranch in Texas.

Murder Half BakedI write traditional mysteries. They feature ordinary people who get caught up in extraordinary events, like murder. The town they live in is on California’s central coast, in the heart of wine country, but it is still a small town, where almost everybody knows everybody else. I wanted the names I used to reflect that, so they got pretty ordinary names. Ellen McKenzie is the main character in the first five books. The only extraordinary thing about her is she keeps finding dead people. Other than that, she struggles to bring up her daughter as a single mom, sells real estate to pay the bills, including her daughter’s, Susannah, college tuition, has a romance with the local police chief, Dan Dunham, and has an aunt named Mary McGill. People just like the ones who might live next door to you. Or would if you lived in a small town.

It’s not only the main characters whose names matter. Minor characters play a big part of any story, and those that reoccur need to be remembered. You don’t want to stop the story while the reader tries to remember who Allan is and where he appeared earlier.

Let’s say you have a minor  character who plays, without intending to, a major role in the solving of the crime. She is middle aged, frumpy, dour, and deadly efficient. She is dedicated to her husband, her children and to what she considers her duty. She appears several times in PureBred Dead, the first in a new series due for release spring of 2015. I needed a name that easily identified her.

I named her Joy.

14 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Thanks for the post, Kathleen. Names are indeed important and hard to get just right. As you say, names evoke an image of the character. They also hint at the character’s backstory and the role they play in the story. I always admired Ian Fleming’s choice of names for his villains. Dr. No and Auric Goldfinger were perfect for leaving an impression of menace and obsession.

    Mark Troy
    marktroymysterywriter.com

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  2. Names are critical to me. The name has to be right before I can continue writing. I rarely change a name once it’s given… my whole process comes to a screeching halt if a new character wanders in (sometimes they do that) and I don’t know who it is…

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  3. I’m also very conscious of “name-calling.” I like a bit of rhyme for my character and tag: The Christy Bristol Astrology Mysteries just trips off the tongue. And, while I like unusual names, I prefer them to be with side characters. I have Lennie, Trace, Maxie and Rodrigo. It’s easy to tell when an author is trying too hard to be different (spare me the romance writers’ choice of names!). I also don’t like it when names are too similar or several start with the same letter. I always hope the protagonist won’t have a name that I find myself cringing every time I read it.

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  4. I often have to look up names on the internet. It was hard to find names for some of the characters in “Carmine Rojas: Dog Fight” I was Googling names from India and Navajo names.

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  5. Joy sounds like a good choice of a name. I haven’t seen it in anything I’ve read for an extremely long time, and never in the old classics (that I know of), so it’s about time the name found a new home. Yeah, names our important. My publisher may want me to change a few of mine, but I chose them because I thought they fit, but that may not be what the reader sees.

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  6. Thank you for this post. I struggle with names for characters. The main sleuth characters in my upcoming cozy mystery are Beth and Meg. Ordinary, but hopefully memorable because their mom liked the book Little Women. Hmmm. I hope my readers agree.

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  7. Those of us of “a certain age” will definetly remember Beth and Meg. And Jo and Amy. Am in the process of starting a new book and have decided that one of the female characters will be Gloria. A short little swarthy lady, with the remnants of adolescent acne. She is a home health aid and possibly a murderer. I don’t know yet. I haven’t gotten far enough into the story to find out.

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  8. I enjoyed the informal tone of this post. I agree names are important. The names of my characters comes to me before I even know what they are about to do (i.e. Agatha Josephine Friday Noonsday, Charlotte Demarayes, etc)

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