What’s in a Name? A Rose is a Rose …

Phone Book photo by Melissa Bowersock phonebk2I’ve just started writing a new book. I’ve had the main idea swimming around in my brain for a month or two, but just in the past couple weeks have I put together some research that is vital to the story, plus some ideas of who the main characters are and what the arc of their story will be. So far I’ve got a couple thousand words down, and within that short period of time, I’ve changed several characters names two or three times.

I love this phase of writing. I love naming my characters. At this point, I will happily, almost giddily, watch the news, a golf tournament, any sports channel with a crawler just so I can peruse the names that flow by. I could very literally sit down and read a phone book for a couple hours and be happy as a clam. For a woman who’s never been pregnant, I have an obscene number of baby name books.

Mahan, Riggs, Spieth, Charleston, Wertzel, Howland, Grogan. I love playing with the names. I test out several for each character, some monosyllabic, some polysyllabic. Why does the number of syllables matter? Let’s play a game. What sounds better?

Rhett Smith

Rhett Butler

Rhett Farthington

Of course we’re all going to recognize Rhett Butler and most likely that sounds the best to us primarily because that’s the name we know. But note how the various full names roll off the tongue, how we emphasize one syllable over another and how it all works together — or not. A couple books ago, I had a character named Lasta (long story, but it’s in the book). For her last name, I wanted something short and rather harsh to match her difficult life. I finally settled on Beck. Lasta Beck. I liked the punch of the last syllable, the hard edge to it. Lasta Purcell would have softened her name and would not have worked near as well for what I wanted, which leads to another consideration.

The sound of the consonants in the name is important. The name of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series gives us clues about his personality before we ever see him. The sibilance of the name and the similarity of Snape to snake all work to suggest someone evil, menacing, and manipulative. The shortness of Snape gives it a brittle quality (like snap), as if he might lash out at any time. And of course finding out later that Snape is not the untrustworthy snake-in-the-grass he was made out to be provides tension and revelation later in the series.

Which leads to another point. Do we want the name to reveal something about our character? Or do we want to set up something of a smoke screen? If my main character is a private detective named Rip Bolger or Clash Callahan, we get a certain idea from those tough, manly names. But what if I name him Alfonse Dardanelle? Or Willis Altamonte? It all depends on whether I want to lead the reader toward the real person behind the name or not. If I don’t want to give anything away, I might name him something rather bland — John Carpenter — and let his character develop organically from the story.

Another consideration is if the character’s nationality or heritage is important to the story. If I give my character a last name of O’Neill, Weiss, Gunther, Xi, or Chopra, that might be enough to quickly give a suggestion of the character’s physical or emotional make-up. Again, as above, it could be a clue to the character’s personality — or not. Mixing nationalities — Padraig Nguyen — could actually point up a conflict in the character’s background, or an interesting story about his beginnings. That’s the fun thing about names. They can add a huge amount of depth to our characters and really make them memorable.

I’d love to have you tell me some of the best (and worst) names you’ve used or seen. And in the meantime I’ll leave you with a little game of what might have been in an alternate universe.

So what’s in a name? You tell me.

Famous Titles Famous Names Famous Lines
The Great Gillenham Reggie Butler Call me Rupert.
The Picture of Dorian Gerber Cindy O’Hara Sonia! Hey, Sonia!
Leonard, King of the Apes Captain Appleby Elementary, my dear Winkleman.
Monica of the d’Urbervilles Atticus Pheasant Open the pod bay doors, Alvin.
Susie’s Choice Frank Christian Toughy, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.
The Mystery of Edwin Dooby Hester Piffel Bond. Freddie Bond.
Dickie Copperfield Shelby Holmes Mrs. Dingle said she would buy the flowers herself.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is the award-winning author of twelve novels and one non-fiction title. She lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

18 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? A Rose is a Rose …”

  1. I too love naming my characters and sometimes change the names. Isn’t search and replace wonderful when you do?
    Except when you change her name from Rose to Mary-Ann and then you get a sentence like this, courtesy of search and replace:
    “He sent her a single red Mary-Ann every valentines day.” .

    Helps to make the search case-sensitive. heh heh heh

    I am very lucky with dolphin characters – I decided from the start they would not have surnames. Easy for the author and less confusing for readers. And you get to choose names like Echo, Rev and Altair.

    1. Love the rose story! Yes, we must be careful with that find and replace. I was recently editing an ms with track-changes on and had already corrected a couple of things that were cropping up again and again, so I did a f/r. Only after the fact I realized that the track changes were keeping the old entry (with strike-out), so the f/r was replacing the corrections I had already made, as well, resulting in duplicate entries. Bleh.

  2. Dickens was great at naming his characters according to their inner selfs.

    Dostoyevsky? Ah, who knows what Raskolnikov meant? Well, it meant two things: (From Wiki:) Scschismatic” (traditionally referring to a member of the Old Believer movement). The name “Rodion” comes from Greek, which means a dweller of Rhodes.

    Huh. And all this time I thought it meant he was a (murderous) rascal!

    1. Interesting to dig down into the names like that and discover new layers to the character that you hadn’t known existed. I’m guessing most of us don’t go quite that deep when naming, tho. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Mostly, my characters introduce themselves to me at the appropriate time, but one of my most apt character names, I think, is Victor Craven, the main Antagonist to my protagonist, John Farrell (a very strong name I feel) in ‘John Farrell is Utrinque Paratus’.

    An Excellent post, Melissa.

    1. Thanks, TD. I have a sense that the stronger the character is, or the greater impression we have of them, the more they suggest their names to us. Antagonists and villains, especially, can be very insistent about their names, and be very unhappy with the wrong one!

  4. Melissa Bowerstock – that’s quite an interesting handle to get your tongue around to begin with, so I fully understand why you find names so fascinating. And you’re right, they do conjure up all sorts of images about the person and what their character may be like.

    I find, however, that this element completely bypasses most of my readers since most of my writing has been non-fiction about Africa. There the names sound so different to western minds that readers have problems getting to grips with them. Many also have complicated spellings, Like Agbegbeyan, a witch-doctor I encountered in Dahomey, or Etu Ikemongoutlou, another one in Mali. Even some of the place names take a bit of getting used to, and they are ones you can find on a map! Places like Ouagadougou, Bobo Dioulasso, Benekeledega or Anehigouya, which roll of indigenous tongues, leave outsiders floundering and are consequently much more difficult to use well in one’s writing.

    One interesting source of old names if you happen to live in Uk is parish churches. Many have boards on which are inscribed the names of former incumbents. In one I visited recently you will find Sebastian Thistlethwaite, Cyrus Montworthy and Twistleton Hamerstock alongside generations of Simon Eagles, Henry Protheoes and John Smyths.Now try working some of those into your story!

    I like your game, and have decided to keep a plastic white board and a wax pencil handy so I can play whilst soaking in a long hot bath to ease the aches of the day. Thanks so much for the idea.

    1. Ian, I’m afraid you’re right; the African names would definitely present a challenge to fiction readers, as many sci-fi and fantasy writers have found when they conjure up a lot of strange, poly-syllabic names. However, if you want to write fiction for the African market … I love all the English names on the church boards. Almost seems like each has a story in itself. Thanks for sharing. (And enjoy the soak and the game!)

  5. Great post Melissa. I love naming my characters too. Some get made up names, others get combinations of real names, but the /sound/ of the name always has to fit the personality of the character somehow.

    1. I agree the sound is important, at least to me. And not only the full name, but any nicknames or shortened names, as well. There’s a lot to consider, which makes it fun to puzzle out.

  6. Naming characters is too much fun! I tend to look for deeper meanings for some of the names, giving a clue about their character (not necessarily MCs). Only the most OCD of my readers ferret out these little Easter eggs, but it sure is cool when they do 🙂

  7. I probably have too much fun with naming my characters. I research last names by nationality and by region of the country — and yes, the first names have to flow well with the last names.

    Originally in my current series, I was going to call one of my main characters Nan — but then I realized how similar that was to another character, Nanabush. So I had to change it. Nan Killeen still sounds better to me than Sue Killeen, but you gotta do what you gotta do…

    1. Lynne, yes similarities are always an issue. I try not to use any first consonant in names more than once in a book, altho I have done it. But when you’re writing about the gods, well, yes–you gotta do what you gotta do!

  8. Naming my characters is probably the funniest part for me and my writing. I am constantly trying to figure out what sounds good together and I do chose names from where they are from.

    My father and I started writing a book together set in Alaska and 5 of the 6 main characters are women who went to college together and they had nicknames for each other. Right away, in the beginning chapters I let the readers know their names and how they got their nicknames while in college. And of course there is the old salty dog captain of the boat I still get to name. Lots of fun.

    Great post, Melissa.

    1. I enjoy the nicknames, too, Jacqueline, and that’s a big consideration when I’m choosing. If I’m writing about very close, long-time friends, they definitely will have pet names for each other (either loving or needling). In my latest book, I have Julia and Maggie, but they call each other Jules and Mags. I think it helps to set the tone for the relationship. Thanks for sharing that.

  9. I LOVE naming characters. When they don’t name themselves. What’s really interesting is choosing names appropriate to a generation or a culture. And what the characters call each other is fun, too. One thing I learned quickly about names, though, is that it’s not the best idea to choose one that rhymes with “said.” So Ted had to go. At least I couldn’t let him speak.

Comments are closed.