On Writing  

Naming Characters
First Impression Impact of Characters
DeborahAnne MacGillivray
© October 2004




Characters names are very important. You just don’t grab any old name. Maybe a writer picks a name that she personally loves, or she thinks is proper to be a lord in the Regency era, a knight of old or a space traveler. However, the smart writers choose their names very carefully to give an instant identification of their characters. So when picking a name, think about the character’s personality, who he or she is, and clothe them with names that express more than a writer’s personal taste.

Alfred Hitchcock used the colours of his actor's clothing to reflect their moods and temperament. In Vertigo, you see the definitive use of colour. Each colour the actor is wearing is telling your something about that character at that point in the story. Writers do the same thing with their names. Lacking the visual imagery, a writer must use words to evoke a character, and the first thing you generally learn about a character is their name.

Writers need to say away from names that are too "purple" (I will skip examples from writers because I don’t think they would appreciate that!) Aireon St.Gideon-Abercombie is my made up name, but very accurately mimics some of the overly frilly Regency era names used. Sometimes these work; sometimes they really hamper the tale!

A writer should also steer away from using names belonging to someone in real life. Heather Graham used Ian McShane for a character in her Branded Hearts. Well, the whole book I saw Lovejoy! The name belongs to a well-known actor. Graham may have wanted you to see that image as you read, but a writer should refrain from doing this. What if the reader hates McShane(hard to believe! lol)? You ruin the reading experience by givingthem and image they cannot push out of their mind. I recall an old Gothic. The woman who wrote it was obviously a Richard Burton fan, and she actually described her hero as “looking like Richard Burton”! That ruined the book for me! I like Burton, but I don’t see him as a romance figure. The same problem comes when you use a name that is too identified with a real person. Names can help or hurt. You would not ordinarily want a man to be named Norman Bates if he is a romantic lead, but it worked perfectly for Robert Bloch’s novel (and later movie) Psycho. Face it, names ARE important!

Here are some great examples of writers picking their names to set the tone of their characters…

Often, when I hear women discuss the …In Death series by J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts) they utter the name Roarke, and sigh, “he’s to die for”. Roarke’s character is a sexy Irishman. Roarke’s name immediately gives that impression – sexy, incisive, Irish. Roberts chose her hero’s name very well for the Eve Dallas series. With a secondary character in the series, Eve has a good friend who is a rock singer. She is off-the-wall weird, in a quirky fashion. She named her Mavis. Mavis works perfectly. It’s not an overly used name, and it’s just delightfully different – the way Roberts created Mavis!

A master of name selection is Jayne Ann Krentz. She also writes as Amanda Quick and Jayne Castle. Each name she publishes under is a specific genre, has a certain formula and the males and female names are chosen accordingly. With her Jayne Anne Krentz, she always uses down to earth, every day names to make her hero and heroine seem real, accessible. With Quick’s books, she is going for Historicals and she bucks the trend of trying to make dashing heroes with dashing names. Both Krentz and Quick aim for a lighter comedic touch so she generally selects names you would NOT use for Romance. Quicks are very frumpy sounding on purpose. With Castle – her Paranormal tales – she goes for men with more adventure in the names, sort of a cross between Indiana Jones and James Bond.

Her down to Earth and slightly intellectual sounding JAK Contemporary characters:

Absolutely Positively - Harry Treveylan and Molly Abberwick
Trust Me - Sam Stark and Desdemona Wainright (*also her heroine came from a theatrical family so notice how she chose a Shakespearian character for her heroine’s first name)
Wildest Heart – Oliver Rain and Annie Lyncroft

Her quirky Quick Hero and Heroines:

Paid Companion: Arthur Lancaster and Elenora Lodge,
Late for the Wedding: Tobias March and Lavinia Lake
Mistress: Marcus Valerius Cloud and Iphiginia Bright
Mischief: Mattias Marshall and Imogen Waterstone

Her Paranormal, writing in her Jayne Castle books she does the same thing. She wanted quirky women, macho men. Notice how she wanted stuffy, uptight sounding males in her Historical Quick Romances. For her Paranormal she wants a harder edged, sort of Indiana Jones kind of guy, so you have hard blunt names like Nick, Rafe, Lucas...

Orchid: Rafe Stonebreaker and Orchid Adams
Amaryllis: Lucas Trent and Amaryllis Lark
Zinnia: Nick Chastain and Zinnia Spring

Another writer using names to convey the Furturistic/Paranormal flavour of her series is Robin D. Owen. Her series deals with people who left Earth, coming from a background of Pagan traditions. Owens names her characters in ancient pre-Christian traditions, immediately setting in your mind the planet Celta has roots from Celtic lore.

Heartmate: Rand T’Ash and Danith Mallow
Heart Thief: Ruis Elder and Ailim D’ SilverFir
Heart Duel: Holm Holly – Lark Hawthrone Collinson

Characters’ names should reflect their ethnic background.  If you are naming a Norman Knight, then check for names of Norman origin.   Same for Scotsman, Irishman or Englishman.  You can Google for Surnames and Christian names.  Try the baby name sites.  Many give you a breakdown of names by country.  They also give you their meanings, which can help you key in on your characters.

Look for original names, names not used too often, but don’t get too ‘out there’ in creating your people.  Truly hard to sound names are troublesome for the reader.  They will stop to sound them out.  If they are not sure they are saying it right, it will keep slowing them down, and distracts their mind from the plot.  You should never do anything that causes the pace to drag in your story.  Names should conjure your hero and heroine to mind, not be a distraction.

So the next time you’re reading a book, take a moment to reflect if the writer really selected those names for a specific purpose and if they chose well!


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