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.