What’s in a Name?

Surprisingly, coming up with a name for a character can be a challenge. I find last names to be worse than first names, because people know many more first names than last. I admit I have gone through the phone book looking for suitable last names (which is how two of my minor characters in the second book got their last name).

Many authors use the names of friends and family members in their books–not because a character reminds them of a person, but because the names we hear frequently are the ones we’re most likely to bring to mind when we’re racking our brains for another new name. That, and names which are familiar to us because of their use in our lives just seem right; it’s like that name needs to belong in our fantasy world as well.

J. K. Rowling used names to reflect on her characters’ characters, in large part. Severus Snape–what could sound more intimidating than a name with “sever” in it? Lucius, while being a Latin/Roman name, conjures, I think, a parallel to “Lucifer.” Draco is Latin for dragon. Scorpious continues the Malfoy tradition of wicked-sounding names, and, like Draco, is also a constellation. Remus Lupin: Lupin is obviously a nod to “lupine,” meaning wolf, but Remus doubles this. The legendary Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf. Romulus went on to found Rome… right after he killed his brother. Remus is a tragic figure, even in legend.

I could go on for pages about all of the clever names J. K. Rowling chose for her characters, but most writers do not put quite that much meaning into their character’s names. (This, however, was obviously a game for Rowling, as she does the same thing with spells, which are often based on Latin words for that action.)

Where did the names of my characters come from? Here’s a run down:

  • Kalyn – Cannot remember where I got the name, but yes, the choice of having a “K” name was done on purpose; she is the character which is most like me. Her middle name is Elizabeth–which was my favorite name growing up. Her last name, Reid, was selected from an online list of Irish names.
  • Anselm – Originally I had a made up name for him, Azliem. Then I stumbled across this medieval name and changed it so that it would be historically accurate.
  • Micah – I can’t remember where I stumbled across this name–perhaps while going through the Bible looking for unusual names (a very good source for really odd names if you’re in need)–but I wrote it down on a list of names for future use in writing.
  • Isaac/Yitzhak – More pulling from the Bible.
  • Ciaran – One of my favorite names from Ireland. My other favorite name, Eamonn, is the name of a character in a short story I wrote.
  • Rose – When I was trying to think of something that was elegant and a bit old-fashioned, this is what popped into my head–no doubt because of Titanic. Rose’s actual name, Rosalind, was influenced by Rosalynn Carter. Her middle name, Faye, is after both of my grandmothers, and her maiden name, Matthews, is after a lady I used to go to church with. Her married name, Stewart, is from my husband’s nickname, Stuart. Oddly enough, though, I wasn’t thinking about my friend, James, at all when I named her husband.
  • Jeremy – This was my favorite boy’s name growing up, and the name of the character in the first “book” I ever wrote (okay, it was a story, not a book, but I was only 11 or 12 at the time). His sister is Dana and her boyfriend is David. I admit I totally ripped those names off from my sister-in-law and her significant other.
  • Megan – This was my second favorite girl’s name when I was a kid. I can’t believe I’m admitting this in public, but it was the name of the eldest girl in the My Little Pony cartoon. How’s that for reaching way back? Megan’s last name, Sullivan, is from my late Aunt Louise.
  • Alice – This was the first name that popped into my head when I needed a name for Kalyn’s mother, but if I’m not mistaken, there was a new Alice in Wonderland movie out at the time. The advertising worked in part, because it got it into my subconscious, although it failed in that I never went to see the movie.
  • Rob(ert) – Another name that just popped into my head.
  • Norma – I kept saying to myself, “Aunt _______.” “Aunt _______.” I finally decided that “Norma” needed to be put into that blank. It sounded right because my husband has an aunt named Norma, and he and his siblings call her “Aunt Norma.”
  • Anne, Thomas, Gretchen and Tommy – More names that just popped into my head. Obviously Tommy is Thomas, Jr.
  • Marie – Named after Sophie Loren’s character, Maria, in Grumpy Old Men.
  • Jonas – I was searching for a mean-sounding name for this character, and this one comes from the antagonist in Twister.
  • Lisa – Came up with at random.
  • Joshua – He was actually “Israel” to begin with, but then I thought that would be too easily confused with Isaac, so I went to a handy-dandy list of Jewish names online and decided on Joshua because I had always liked it. (I am extremely fond of boys names that begin with J for some reason.)
  • Naomi – This is another Biblical name I have always thought pretty. I used to work with a Naomi.
  • Marcus – A not-too-uncommon Latin name, I think my use of it was undoubtedly influenced by the character of Marcus in the Indiana Jones movies.
  • Levi – Another common Jewish name from an online list.
  • Abelard – Another distinctly medieval name, it is from the famous romantic story of Abelard and Heloise.
  • Keith – My dad’s middle name.
  • Rick – My dad’s first name.
  • Matt and Todd – I pulled these names out at random, but they seemed like a good pairing for identical twins.
  • Tony and Geena – I think Tony was influenced by the fiddle player I used to listen to in Ireland. Geena’s name came from Geena Davis.
  • Teddy – I took this from President Roosevelt.
  • Brandon – I once went to school with a Brandon–although he was pretty much the exact opposite of the Brandon in the second book.
  • Mr. Bill White – My 9th and 11th grade English teacher was Mr. Phil White–or, as everyone called him, Whiteman.
  • Ami/Amira – This is Joshua’s secretary. I thought “Amy” sounded like a cute name, but “Ami” seemed more plausible as a Jewish name. She was just “Ami” until I found “Amira” used as a name in use in Israel, so that’s her real name, even if you never see it used in the books.
  • Avi – I swear I totally made up this name. Imagine my surprise when I found out that it’s pretty common in Israel, and that it’s often short for Avram–which is the name of Avi’s father (So Avi became Avram, Jr.). I must admit that I broke my rule about not naming people similarly with this family, although Avi is the only character we really get to know; Ami and Avram are background characters.
  • Sam Waters – He is named after Sam Watkins, a Confederate soldier who wrote the autobiography Company Aytch. His descriptions of his friendships in the army are what shapes Anselm and Micah’s friendship.

Tips on naming characters:

  • Keep a running list of possible character names. When you run across a name that looks or sounds interesting, add it to the list. You may want to also keep track of the name’s cultural origin, meaning, and its gender.
  • Make sure that your characters’ names aren’t too much alike. I reuse short-lived names (there’s a background character named Ben in the first book and that’s also the name of a dog in the second book; there’s a Bill in the second book and a Bill in a prequel; there’s a Mark in the first book and in a prequel; there’s a David in the first book, a Dave in the second book, and a Dovid in the third book), because no one remembers them anyways, but all of my primary characters have very different names. Of course we all know that in real life you can have an office with three Marys and half a dozen Johns, but no one likes confusing names in books; keep them distinct. I try to be careful not to pull from the same letter of the alphabet all the time, so when I need a new name, I look at my keyboard and try to aim for a letter I haven’t used in a while.
  • Wikipedia, me love you long time. Here is a list, by letter, of 2,600 names (including place names) in the Bible. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you can only use these names for Jewish characters; some are so bizarre and ancient that they’re perfect for fantasy/sci-fi; no one but serious Biblical scholars will ever know where they came from.
  • This is my list of old-fashioned names. Many of these names come from the Foxfire books and my own family’s genealogy, so there are a number of traditional Appalachian/Southern names. There are also a lot of medieval names and some colonial names, and then there are some names which aren’t that unusual–like Polly–but which are not commonly used any more.
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