Name That Character

No, it’s not a game show, but it is a game all writ­ers play. And, it does remind me of a game show—What’s My Line from the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, that’s anoth­er game writ­ers play—giving their char­ac­ters a job. But, back to the names. How does that work?

Bit player—needs an ordi­nary name. John Smith. Nope, too ordi­nary. Mary Mar­tin. Nope, a big star already owns that name.

Play­er that must be over­looked until the dénouement—needs a dis­tinc­tive name, I’d say, with his infor­ma­tion seem­ing to be slight. Fane Olivet­ti. Nope. A bit too dis­tinc­tive, and prob­a­bly comes from two dif­fer­ent parts of the world.

You get the idea. And that goes dou­ble for main char­ac­ters. I once wrote a young adult sto­ry with a hero named Jasper. Nev­er heard of it, except for the name of a city. For­got the sto­ry for years. Took it out to rewrite, and dis­cov­ered that Jasper was a main char­ac­ter of a new, wild­ly pop­u­lar YA book. Okay, he need­ed a new name. Would you believe Fred? In fact, Fred’s name was real­ly Friedrich due to his Ger­man her­itage. How­ev­er, short­ly after WW II, the war with Ger­many the ene­my, that name con­tributed to someone’s para­noia, and added a whole miss­ing ele­ment to the plot. (Yes, serendip­i­ty exists.)

So, how do writ­ers come up with names? Some keep lists. I do. I have three alpha­bet­i­cal lists that I add to con­stant­ly: male, female, and sur­names. I may add nota­tions: top ten in 2002, His­pan­ic, Japan­ese. But often, I choose names not on that list. Or, don’t choose them.

There’s a name I haven’t used, but I remem­ber it. When I was a child a neigh­bor­ing fam­i­ly had immi­grat­ed from some­where. The preg­nant wife decid­ed to name her child after the ship’s cap­tain. But since the child was a girl, she was named after the ship. Yes, her name was Ula­dia. Haven’t used that name yet.

I always search the name I use on the inter­net. (That alerts me to names of real peo­ple I don’t want to use, but there are always real peo­ple by the name. I just pick one with­out some­one famous or noto­ri­ous.)

Oth­er peo­ple search names as well—their own names. One sur­prise was when one woman with the same name as one of my main char­ac­ters found my book—and bought it! Wow! And, it wasn’t a com­mon name at all. In fact, she e-mailed me to say she knew of no one with that sur­name but her imme­di­ate fam­i­ly. Hmm. Maybe I should use those more com­mon names. (Just kid­ding.)

Ques­tion for read­ers: How do the names affect your immage of a book’s char­ac­ters? (Writ­ers want to know.)

Ques­tion for writ­ers: Do you have a spe­cial way you choose writer names? (This writer wants to know.) Okay, I should put a hap­py face here, or one of those, um, what­ev­er they are called.