What’s in a Name?

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Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter.

 

As I get older, I seem to be experiencing an odd form of dyslexia (I think) where my brain transposes letters in words so that I read something that’s not there. Only on second glance do the letters rearrange into what they’re supposed to be.

This has been a boon for me in one way: character names. For example, I came across the surname “Murdock,” but my eyes thought they saw “Mudrock,” and after my initial annoyance at myself, I thought, what a great name for a character.

I collect names because few things are as frustrating to a writer as creating a new character and not being able to name them, right? First names are easier to come by; I pop open 1001 Names for Baby and can usually find one that works. But surnames? The tone must be just right.

In my novel Mending Dreams, the main character’s last name is Krajewski [yeah, even now I have to look it up in the book to spell it correctly], and that was intentional. I knew a fellow with that last name, and he used to joke about how people mispronounced it. I wanted the character, Susan, to have willingly kept the name even after she and her husband divorced. Her maiden name was Stafford, and it says volumes about her and her feelings about her ex-husband that she kept his name despite the difficulties it could cause.

My list of unusual surnames fills several pages in my notebook. One I’m trying to find a story for is “Evilsizer.” Meaning no disrespect to real people with this name—and I found several via Google—I think it would be perfect for a scheming couturier. Or maybe someone who is really nice. . .

Strong first and last names are essential to me so I can paint a picture in my own mind of the character before I start writing. Names help me visualize characters—sometimes even more than physical descriptions. Names bring with them associations for me personally that color a character’s nature and behavior.

Take the name “Joan,” for example. What does this name conjure up for you? Joan of Arc? Joan Crawford? Joan Baez? For me, it brings back the memory of a woman named “Joanie,” the utterly helpless wife of a fellow I worked for. This woman would call my boss with every little challenge life presented her. If she locked her keys in the car, her first call wasn’t to Auto Club; it was to her husband. I haven’t found a role for Joan or Joanie in my stories yet, but some day I will.

Names and the way they are used in a story also reveal behavior and sometimes emotion.  The main character in my novel Write My Name on the Sky goes by “Kate,” but when she exasperates her mother, she becomes “Kathryn Ann.” How many of you remember hearing the sound of your first and middle name as a cue that you were in big trouble with a parent? And if they added your last name—run for cover!

Sometimes the way a name is mis-used in a story can affect the outcome, too. For example, my flash fiction piece “What’s in a Name?” answers that question with one word at the end of the narrator’s date with the man of her dreams. If you want to check it out (it’s only 532 words), follow the link on my website: http://bit.ly/2En7TJw

Yes, names are important to writers, and to readers. And not just the human characters. The animals in our stories need particular names, too. After all, none other than the masterful poet T.S. Eliot admonishes us to give thought to the naming of cats:  http://bit.ly/2mZ47xQ

How about you writers: do you struggle as much as I do to come up with suitable character names? And, readers: any favorites among your literary heroes and heroines? Any tips for good name sources?

 

17 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?”

  1. Names! Great post, Bonnie. I spend a lot of time on names. For me, it’s part of the character’s description (physical and emotional) along with what car they drive. For example, the initial picture the name Jack brings up is quite different then Leslie, or Wilbur, or Hansen. Then it’s fun to fit in the rest of the character description that corresponds to my picture of the name–or, contradict the picture the name initially brings up. Downside is my experience with Wilburs could be quite different than a reader’s and we’re seeing two different people. What a thought provoking post, enjoyed reading and thinking further on the topic this morning. (ps had to make several word respelling corrections–you’re not alone)

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    1. Thanks, Mad. You are so right that our associations with a particular name might create a very different impression in the reader. And life can affect those reactions, too. I used to like the name “Harvey” but now I think of it a different way.

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  2. Love this post, Bonnie! I’ve been plotting some ideas that I just came up with and I spend a nice, long time figuring character names. For first names, I check a book I have plus websites, and for last names I just figure what might go with the first names and then change them a bit. But having the right name is so important to making sure the character is who the writer wants her/him to be. Thanks for writing about this!

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  3. Terrific post, Bonnie, and so true. Choosing the right name for a character is akin to casting the right actor for a role. Like you, I use many online sources to find the perfect moniker, both given and surname, for my characters. My novels take place in Europe, which adds another dimension to their selection. In addition to the personality, it has to fit the nationality and ethnicity. My favorite might be a minor character in my third novel, Mr. Jezek, a pompous officiate with a prominent mustache. Jezek is Czech for ‘hedgehog’.

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  4. Thanks, Miko. Yikes–European names would certainly add an extra challenge all right. But you’ve done great. I did not know about the hedgehog, but all the names I’ve encountered seem to fit the characters.

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  5. Shakespeare might have had Romeo say: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But names do convey character in so many ways. Brunhilde would never be a demure socialite. A guy named Leslie would never be a tough guy, though Les might get away with it. I, too, have lists of names I have run across or just thought about. Richard worked for a guy named Tyrone Chang. How I would like to use that sometime. But as you pointed out, names can mean different things to different people. When you mentioned Harvey, I immediately thought of the six-foot rabbit, not the Hollywood slug. And the great name you use today might be the ax murderer of tomorrow. But if the name strikes a chord in the writer, and the character adds to his personality with his actions, maybe the name will be perfect no matter what happens in the world outside of the book. Great post.

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    1. Thanks, GB. Speaking of ax murderers, the college professor in my last novel was originally named Curtis Vance, until I Googled the name and found it also belonged to a notorious murderer-rapist in the South. You can’t control what happens in the future, of course, but that experience taught me to check out names before I use them.

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  6. I should give names more thought. I try to find names I haven’t used before, or names I like the sound of. Or, hopefully, names that don’t begin with M or B, since I tend to overuse those. Quite often, I go back to grade school or my childhood neighborhood to find surnames.

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    1. I make a list of character names, first and last, for each project, to avoid the dreaded “M or B” situation. It’s a common woe for we writers, Jackie. One more thing to worry about when naming our “babies,” huh?

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  7. I keep an Excel spreadsheet with first names for men and women that I like. The male list is in alphabetical order and divided by the number of syllables. I do the same for the female list, but also separate them by names that end in a soft A (like Melissa), which I tend to overuse, in an IE sound (like Chloe), and others. Whenever I need a given name I pick one from the list and note that it’s been used.

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  8. Very good post, Bonnie, and it’s inspired some great comments/suggestions as well.
    In my children’s series, I have the Mom name them by the month they were born in: Marshall (March), Julie (July), Melody May & Charity June (twins born just before and after midnight on May 31st), April (April), Gus (August), Deacon “Deek” (December) and finally another set of twin girls Aubrey & Audrey (in August).
    I knew a girl in Junior High School named Melody Hummer, and a community theater actress’s REAL name, Mercedes Benz. My hubby went 4-12 grades with a kid named Jerry Derryberry. 😀

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  9. Yeah – what’s in a name – so true, Bonnie! I too have a notebook full of interesting names I have collected. Great post!

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