Thursday, August 28, 2008

A rose by any other name

Names. One of the most memorable aspects of a story. When I say Aislinn and Wulfgar, almost every romance reader instantly remembers Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Wolf and the Dove. Names help create the character and define the era, location, and social class as well. When I was in about junior high, I for no apparent reason started a list of every name I could come up with starting with each letter of the alphabet, and kept it probably through college. I've always been fascinated by names--their meanings, origins, and combinations.

As an author you try to create names that fit the character and will stand out, just a bit, from the crowd. One of my publishers has a no-no list of overused names, which I applaud, even though I question a couple of inclusions. I was also a little cranky when my first French gargoyle had to suddenly change his name because I hadn’t checked the list. So Luc became Damien. C’est la vie. Luc had probably been a bit of a lazy choice, anyway. And I’d like to add Jack, Jake and Nick to the list. Sorry. All good solid names. All just a wee bit over-used.

I also use names and variations on names to show certain things within a story. In my cowboy books, the brothers are all named after famous authors, because their father was a voracious reader as well as a rancher. So CJ is named for Raymond Chandler and James Jones, Fitz is Faulkner Fitzgerald, and Trip (Triple H) is named for Robert Howard and Ernest Hemingway. The use of nicknames is an indicator of the relationship between the brothers. From the time he meets Allison, CJ calls her Allie, which no one has done since her father. That she lets him is an indication of her growing feelings for the man. In Curses, there is a similar thing with Jonas/Joe. Mel loves his name, while he’s spent so much of his life trying to be “an average Joe,” that he has totally adopted the name. Only his attraction to Mel lets him accept being called Jonas.

I’ve been guilty of using ethnic names that need a pronunciation guide. David Garvaglia, the hero of Djinni and the Geek, is pleased when Anissa (a made-up name, since I invented the existence of a Djinn language) pronounces his name correctly—Gar-VAHL-ya, instead of Gar-VAG-lee-a. I’ll admit I stole this name from a high-school friend. Cian, the 200-year-old Irish mage in Sorcerer’s Song, coming in September’s Ellora’s Cavemen Anthology, loves the way his name sounds in Lyra’s musical voice: KEY-inn, with just the right inflection.

Lyra, from the Greek for music, seemed kind of obvious for a siren, but pretty enough that I used it anyway. Marina, the selkie in Stone and Sea, is a bit obvious too, but in reality I named her for a cousin. I kind of like to slip little homages in here and there. Beth, heroine of Always a Cowboy was also named after a recently deceased cousin. I do have a couple of websites I use when I’m looking for names, especially for specific nationalities. Other authors on my loops have been helpful too. Welsh author Hweyla Lyn (Yep that’s her real first name. Isn’t it cool?) provided the names for Beltaine Bargain. For most of my contemporary characters I like names that are simple and not too far out, but not overused. I try to diligently avoid trendy. (shudder) Now fantasy and futuristic names...those you get to simply make up. Working right now on Tabrin and Zeyd--futuristic bounty hunters. Yum.

In the end naming your characters is nearly as personal as naming your children, though you're not stuck listening to them grouse about them through their teenage years. It's a fun part of the creative process and a place where you can add a subtle nudge or a tip of the hat. And if they don't work out? Oh well, there's always another story.


  1. I accidentally discovered a good source for both first and surnames yesterday. I logged on to, that site where you can connect with your peeps from high school. And the way they list names, with last name in one column and first name in another one makes it easy to mix-n-match names.

    I used to do work that exposed me to a lot of foreign names, and every time I found one that sounded interesting, unique, or could be broken down into something interesting or unique, I'd add it to a running list. I lost that list when my hard drive went kaput a few years ago, and every time I sit down to write, particularly fantasy, I regret the loss.

  2. I gave one of my characters a name that I loved, never dreaming that one day I would also give it to one of my kids! I've jokingly told him not to use the fictional K as a role model; when asked if I could re-name the character, I said the name is ingrained in his personality, and any other name would change it. Same for my female characters, one of which has a long name. I can't change it; it's already a part of her personna.

  3. Anissa IS a name. It is West Asian & so are Tabrin & Zeyd! :0

    These names are also common in India!

    I think you are right about the name of the hero/ine standing out just a wee little bit!

    As for Jack, Tom , Harry etc., these names can still be used, to describe 'common characteristics character' one with whom the reader can identify!

  4. I tend to use generic names as "fillers" for secondary characters. Sometimes they stick and sometimes I change them. But it's the reason Mona shows up in two of my pubbed stories. It was in three before I noticed the trend and removed it. And this before I met Mona TwoBits or knew Mona Risk well. Just a name I like that was a female filler and easy to search for.

  5. I'm trying to think of a normal name that I've used. Still thinking...

    Good blog!

    Oh, yeah. Dick and Peter...

  6. Well Mona--I stand corrected. At least I know why those names sounded "right" now, don't I?

  7. Funny about using names of people we KNOW. I have used the name Minnie in both historical and contemporary books I've written. Minnie is my grandmother, long gone but never forgotten, so I often use her name in tribute.

  8. Especially for historicals (not that I write many historicals but a few) I like to consult genealogy sites. They're a great source for little used names - like Pleasant - as well as to help set the time period.

    As per using names of people I know like Regina mentions, I used to avoid that - at least close family members. But I first used my oldest son's name "Luke" for a vampire. It was an erotic romance. I was really thinking of Luke from General Hospital as inspiration for the hero, not Luke my child. However, my Luke is also my computer techie and he fixed my computer right after I wrote that romance. So he and my dil found that story and she read it (maybe he did, too, I don't know). Anyway, the dil won't let me forget that I wrote an erotic romance with my son's name and she keeps teasing me. I finally had to tell her it was after Luke from GH before she'd let me live it down - well, now she teases me about that. Oh well... But I find it weird to use names of close relatives and friends. Yet I know other authors who almost exclusively use their family's names.

  9. To comment on what Kelly said about repeating filler names, I rarely reuse another name in a story. Maybe if it's been many years apart, but even then I try not to. That said, I once used a heroine's name twice, which is a no no for me. It was "Jenny". I can only say the second time I used it, I was pregnant and Jenny was at the top of my list if we had another girl. Have you ever noticed Stephen King reuses hero/heroine names a lot? Like David, Mary, Audrey... At least he did it in "Desperation" and "The Regulators" - that was weird even for him. The 2 stories had the same basic plot, the same evil, but he flipped the characters. The characters that were evil in Desperation were the good ones in The Regulators and vice versa. Weird...


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