William Shakespeare had Juliet utter these famous words: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But as Romeo and Juliet discovered, the entire story revolved around those names and the fact that he was a Montague and she was a Capulet and those two families weren’t destined to get together. The same with the Hatfields and the McCoys. Without the tension between those families, we wouldn’t have the classic story that we know today.
My point being: Names Matter.
There is a saying credited to Elmore Leonard who was a master at picking names for his marvelous characters. He said he was having trouble with a character until he changed the guy’s name and then he couldn’t shut him up.
There is so much truth in that. Go back to Romeo and Juliet. If Romeo had come from another family that didn’t have a lifetime feud with the Capulets, he and Juliet would have had no problem getting married. But he was a dreaded Montague and there was no peace between the families until half the cast of the play was dead and the survivors saw the error of their ways and had a group hug before the curtain came down. I’m making up the hug part, but you get the drift.
The same plot was used in the musical, West Side Story. Many of the Sharks and the Jets lay dead in the street by the time the credits rolled. But that was the story. The names mattered. So here’s a heads up: Your characters might be begging for a different name if you would just listen.
Are you having trouble getting that guy you introduced on page 24 to fit into the costume you decided he should wear? Maybe the costume doesn’t fit the name you have pinned onto that character. Change the name and see if he looks better in that outfit. I mean really, would a guy named Bruno Lipbuster look right in a Saville Row suit? Or would Maisie Dalrimple look right with a crown on her head as queen of a mythical country in Europe?
Johnny Casino, the main character in my Johnny Casino Casebook Series, got his name when I thought about who he was and what he did for a living. He’s a private detective, so I wanted him to have a detective’s name. I knew his first name was going to be Johnny. But what about his last name?
My first thought was Sam Spade from Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. I loved that movie and Bogie as Sam Spade. Then an old TV series starring David Jansen popped into my head. His name was Richard Diamond in the show.
That’s when I started to see a mental pattern forming. The characters’ last names were the suits on playing cards. The third name would be heart. What about Jonathan Hart in the old TV series Hart to Hart?
Okay, those names were all taken. What about the last suit of cards in the deck? That would be clubs. I couldn’t think of any character in movies or TV that was called Club. BUT, what is another name for a club? Not the wooden object that hits you over the head, but the one where you play cards: a casino. Ah.
I had a name: Johnny Casino. I looked up the name on the Internet to see how many times it was used. A character in Grease was named Johnny Casino. There was also a tattoo parlor out here in California, now closed, called Johnny Casino’s Tattoo Parlor. The name wasn’t really over used. I picked that name.
And Johnny liked it, but there was more to his name than I knew at first. Johnny enlightened me. Johnny wasn’t born with the name Johnny Casino. It had been Johnny Cassini. He has a story in the second book, The Johnny Casino Casebook 2 – Looking for Johnny Nobody, that explains how he went from Cassini to Casino. But it all started with Sam Spade and a deck of cards.
And then there was Chance McCoy in my latest detective series. The title of the collection of short stories, Second Chance, and his name hit me like two trains colliding. I had written the first few pages of the first story back in high school. I didn’t know what to do with those pages, so I decided to save them. Sixty years later I looked at that opening and thought that this guy had a second chance in life. Bam! Chance had to be his name. I don’t know where the McCoy came from. Maybe he told me his last name. Nevertheless, I use the word “chance” in every title of every short story in the collection. His first name couldn’t have been anything else.
Minor character’s names seem to come to me when I think about who they are and what their background might be in my story. Elmer and Delmer were two goofy brothers in a short story. The rhyming, old-fashioned names fit the type of people I wanted them to be.
Dale Carr’s moniker was a take-off on actor Glenn Ford’s name. (A glen is another word for a dale; a Ford is a car.) I had my character basically co-opt the life of actor Glenn Ford, but I didn’t feel right using his real name in the story. I did use some parts of his life like a location that was used in one of his movies.
I did sort of the same thing in my spy novels though I did use real historical characters like Eisenhower and Ian Fleming and a few others. They dropped in for a guest appearance. Everybody else was a character that I created like Rhoda Zimmerman and Martha Rose. These two ladies were minor characters in the third spy novel, Star Power. The book dealt with communism in Hollywood starting back in the 30s and 40s. Both ladies were big-time communists. Both names are also a version of the color red. I’m not the first person to use that color to denote a fellow traveler. Communists did it themselves for aliases.
Many people in old Hollywood were Jews. I had a few guys with Jewish names appear like Sidney Berman and Martin Zimmerman. When I wanted a name that sounded like a famous writer I chose William Durack. How about an agent named Peter Roth? The name sounds like a talent agent.
I did have to consider the era in which the majority of the book takes place. No Tiffany’s, Amber’s or Kanisha’s welcome. I used Lillian and Estelle instead. And a maid called Hilda Brown. Back in that era many gals who went into domestic work were right off the boat from Germany or England, so they got the gig.
In the second book in the spy series called Dry Bones, I have Oriental characters. The Internet has places you can check to see what various Oriental names mean. One of the main characters in the book is Trang van Quang – Trang means intelligent, beautiful/ Van means cloud/Quang means clear. I liked what that name meant. Quang’s adopted daughter was called Su Linh – Linh means spring, soul. That totally fit her.
A recurring character in all three of the spy novels is an Air Force pilot named Major Ralph M. Barton. It’s no coincidence that the guy flew C-47s and was stationed in Okinawa, Memphis, France, and Florida. And that he had a daughter named Elaine who ended up being a writer who, in the first book, wrote a very similar book in order to catch a traitor. That was part of the plot. You see, my late dad’s name was Major Ralph M. Bartos, USAF retired. My middle name is Elaine. I knew these characters really well and the names had to be that close to the original people so I could tell the story. (Not everything in my spy novels is fiction, by the way.)
So my point in this piece is to mention how important names are to you and to the reader. Play with the names you have chosen. If those characters don’t speak to you, think about changing them until they won’t shut up. (Thanks Mr. Leonard for your quote.) The right name will help you write your story.
12 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? by G.B. Pool”
Yes, names are important. I often refer to the Social Security name index to make sure my name fits the ages of my characters (no Brittanys born before 1971). My Marjorie is older, while my Caitlin is young. Movie credits have given me ideas. I love how you worked out the pattern of card suits.
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As I was writing this blog as well as when I wrote The Anatomy of a Short Story Workbook I realized how important names are to a story. I try several on for size to see what works. It is clever of you to check the Social Security index to see when names came into vogue. Thanks for dropping by.
Gayle, thank you for such a terrific post littered with amazing research, I learned a lot not only about the authors you quote and describe but also about how important character names are. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and making it fascinating.
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Thanks, Jill. I make a list of the names as I go in a story to make sure they all don’t begin with the same letter, too. I don’t want the reader to confuse Mary with Mandy or Maisie… unless I want to be funny.
I love this post, Gayle! I often spend long amounts of time trying to come up with my characters’ names, then Google them to find out if real people exist with those names and, if so, who they are. It can be time-consuming, but it’s definitely important to the story, and to those characters. Thanks for letting us in on your process.
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Thanks Linda, and thanks for the story at lunch today about someone who shared one of your character’s names e-mailing you. How many of us would like their character to contact them?
I love this post! Especially hearing how Johnny Casino and Chance McCoy(two of my most favorite characters) got their names. What particularly struck a chord with me was the Major Barton connections. So many of my characters (especially backstory or secondary) are names of deceased I cared about. Makes the work special to me.
I have used the names of people I knew and loved who have passed away as characters. They are always some of the good guys. I don’t like to waste ink on those few I don’t really like, so I never use their names.
Greetings from New Zealand. I really enjoyed your post, Gayle, especially learning the genesis of your characters’ names. In my historical fiction, I also use names appropriate for the time, locale and ethnicity and have named characters dear to me after beloved family and friends who are now deceased.
On the other hand, I often combine a posh given name with a lowly surname to impart pretentiousness in a character, or give them a mildly insulting moniker to bring them down a peg. For example, in my most recent novel I introduced an attaché with connections to the Imperial Foreign Minister of Austria-Hungary. A pompous man, I named him Felix Jezek, a surname that translates into hedgehog.
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I like the idea of giving a character a bit of a tweak to his name. It adds so much to the story. I hope someone whispers behind their hand what the name means so everybody gets the joke. Enjoy the Land Down Under.
You’re definitely right about names, Gayle. My characters often go through several name changes before the final-final draft. But that’s one of the great advantages of computers. Before them it was a nightmare to do that and inevitably you’d miss one or two.
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I have changed a few names along the way myself. I keep a Characters Sheet where I list each character as I create them. Then, if I change their name, I line out that name and add the new one. There is a section for a brief description, too. It helps me keep track of everybody and also lets me know if I have too many names beginning with the same letter.
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