What’s in a Name?

A colleague of mine has decided to write a novel. He’s got a dandy plot lined up, he’s working on outlining it, but he’s hit a stopping spot. I recently got an e-mail from him asking, “what is a good way to come up with names for characters?”

What a great question.

Oft times we just look in the phone book and – voila! our character is named Herbert Marello. Or, if you want to be more subtle, take a first name from one page and a last name from another and… Richard Shockey. Hmmm, that one isn’t half bad.

It should be that easy, but most of the time, it isn’t. If you’re writing a novel about a two-fisted gumshoe, you don’t want to name him Peter Richard Swisher. You need to stick with rugged sounding, mostly monosyllabic names – James Bond, Jack Ryan, and Dirk Pitt, which I thought was a joke when I first heard it. But hey, folks I know swear by Clive Cussler, and he’s sold more books than I, so more power to him.

I know a writer who bases characters on people he knows, actually using their names in early drafts of his manuscripts. Then he goes back through with Search and Replace to change them out. You probably wouldn’t know the difference, but it’s kind of jarring to me, since I know a lot of his friends and his substitute names just don’t conjure the character for me like the originals do.

Romances have different naming conventions than Thrillers. You want to conjure up images of heaving bosoms and six-pack abs. A hero named Hank Finster isn’t going to work. Fantasy novels harken Medieval, so literal descriptive names can work – it wouldn’t be out of line to name a dwarf Orkin Footdragger. In science fiction, all bets are off. You could name a character Yggx Mmljkrets, and it would work – to a point. I had trouble reading Niven and Pournelle’s baby-elephants-invade-Earth novel, Footfall, because I had problems keeping their what’s-floating-in-my-alphabet-soup names straight. Not to mention if you name a character with a real ballet across the keyboard, you’re going to rue giving him/er/it that name halfway through your first draft.

Then there’s the convention of the torn-from-the-headlines potboiler. Let’s say you want to write a completely hypothetical fiction novel about an ex-running back who gets coked up one night, and, oh, let’s say he decides to hack an old girlfriend into little pieces. What to name him? Hmmm, I think something like “B.J. Henson” would send all the message you need. (Note to the literal minded: I’m kidding. Don’t do this. Don’t even write a torn-from-the-headlines potboiler. Not only is it the stuff of cliche – it’s also the stuff of lawsuits).

Here’s a look at some of my character names and the approaches I took when naming them – then I’ll finish up with some heavyweights to add more insight.

D.A. Payne (A Death of Honor) was inspired by actor E.G. Marshall. He was once asked in an interview what the “E.G.” stood for. He said, “Everyone’s guess.” I thought that was witty, and it said loads about Marshall’s personality. So I gave Payne the initials “D.A.” just so someone could ask what they stood for – and he could reply “Don’t ask.” He never told me what “D.A.” really stood for. It could be seen as a symbolic name, too, since his story begins with him being in a lot of psychological pain – although he doesn’t realize it until later.

Andy Birch (The Company Man) went through a couple of different names before I settled. One was Charlie Angeles – you can see that in the early draft of the manuscript, even. I later recycled that name in Ferman’s Devils. I don’t know how I hit on the name, but I liked it a lot once I hit on that combination. Could also be a symbolic name, since birch trees are known for bending under pressure. Don’t know if it fits The Company Man, though.

Just about every character in the Angel’s Luck trilogy is named after friends of mine from college. I either used their names literally, shortened them (May from Mainord, Vonn from Vaughan), or used some kind of nickname that pointed to them. Bear and Winters came from a couple of geeky 4-H kids I met after college – an odd Mutt and Jeff pair of friends, the idea of which translated rather oddly into a pair of bloodthirsty mercenaries.

The Pembroke Hall novels were different. Outside of the Devils, most of the characters worked at ad agency Pembroke Hall, and I wanted them to all have corporate sounding names. So while I was in the notes stage of the book, every time I read or heard a last name that sounded important and business-like, I jotted it down and then added it to my master list of names. Whenever a new character within the company came into play, I pulled one off the list and crossed it out. In a trick that harkened back to A Death of Honor, nobody at Pembroke Hall had first names except for the ill-fated Sylvester. A couple of other anomalies – director Charlie Angeles, a name booted from The Company Man, and the luscious Honnikker In Accounting, who is always, always, always referred to as Honnikker In Accounting (and that took a little work to keep the sentences from sounding clumsy when I did it).

Names can be chosen to impart an obvious meaning or to allude to something else. In the Pembroke Hall story, one of the replacement Devils was named Greg Samsa, after the protagonist in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. It’s not an accident that he has apples thrown at him by Ferman, nor that his street name becomes Cockroach. Jimmy Jazz was named in honor of the Clash song of the same title, which gave me his hobby (playing jazz on the saxophone), and even his real name, James Jasczek. I actually did name one of Ferman’s associates Peter Richard Swisher, to highlight the irony of using an intimidating street name. And poor old “Jet” Georgeson was named because it’s a spoonerism of the name of one of the stable of Hanna Barbera cartoon characters. I never actually say it – but Ferman sings the theme song at one point in the book.

And sometimes when you’ve just pulled a name out of thin air and run with it, serendipity sets in. In my story The Right Tools for the Job, I named the two protagonists Henning (the old master vampire hunter) and Gottleib (his journeyman assistant). I don’t think it was until after it was published that I saw a piece of symbolism in those names that would make an English major proud. Henning was the name of a popular magician in the 70’s (the late Doug Henning), while Gottleib translates out of German as “God love.” In the story, Henning (magic or trickery or sorcery) fails to destroy the evil, but Gottleib (God love, God’s love, Christ) does. At one point that is probably my favorite moment, Henning runs away from the evil vampire, crying out “Gottleib! Gottleib!” I’m not saying that’s what it all means, nor did I consciously put it there. But it’s kind of neat that it worked out that way.

Of course, an analysis of character names in an Adam Sandler film might yield the same results.

Enough about my tricks. What do some of the big timers do?

If you’re Stephen King, you throw your weight around, as he did when he named the protagonist of The Dead Zone Johnny Smith. No author in their right mind would name a character “John Smith,” but King did. Actually, his reasoning is kind of interesting – he says he wanted to show with that name that the kind of fate that befell Smith could happen to anyone – he was literally an everyman. I buy that, and respect the decision, as much as I razz King in these pages. Other King character names are unexceptional and unmemorable to me except, perhaps, Carrie White – another could-be-symbolic name since the purity of white is stained with blood (in at least three different ways) during the course of the eponymous novel.

Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 is practically an encyclopedia unto itself of ways to name characters. There’s use of a foreign language (Lt. Scheisskopf, German for “sh*t eater”); slapstick (Major Major Major Major); vocabulary words (Popinjay, “a strutting, supercilious person”); character descriptions (General Peckem and Corporal Snark); euphonious nonsense syllables (General Dreedle); rhymes (Milo Minderbinder); comic effect (ex-PFC Wintergreen); plus names that reflect how we don’t always know somebody’s real name (Nately’s Whore, Nately’s Whore’s Kid Sister, the maid with the lime-colored panties, the Soldier Who Sees Everything Twice); and many others

I think Ian Fleming was great at naming characters. Forget the shameless double entendres that you see in all of the James Bond movies – Fleming had a real way with naming his Villains, his Henchmen (henchpersons?), and yes, his women. They all had names that reflected the right amount of larger-than-lifeness, toadyhood, or mystique as required by the plot: Monsieur Le Chiffre, Mr. Big, Sir Hugo Drax, Dr. Julius No, Auric Goldfinger, Emilio Largo, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Maria Freudenstein (villains); Quarrel, Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, Rufus B. Saye, Colonel Rosa Klebb, Sluggsy and Horror, Irma Bunt (henchpersons); and of course, the women – Vesper Lynd, Solitaire, Gala Brand, Tiffany Case, Corporal Tatiana Romanova, Judy Havelock, Dominetta “Domino” Vitali, Kissy Suzuki, and Mary Goodnight.

With names like Chemo and Shad, Carl Hiassen has a real way with the names of comic henchmen.

Finally, Elmore Leonard is good at naming characters because he’s got an ear for the names that average folks have. Names like… well, just read an Elmore Leonard novel. He’s brilliant, and when you read one of his novels, you’ll get a lot more out of it than just how to name a character.

Meantime, I call first dibs on Richard Shockey, Hank Finster, Orkin Footdragger, and Yggx Mmljkrets – even if I have to cram them all into the same novel. Feel free to use B.J. Henson at your own risk.

The sunlight dancing on your rocky shores
The moonlight playing upon the water
Your memory will stay with me forevermore
Wherever I may roam

(via iPod Shuffle)


2 responses to “What’s in a Name?

  1. Great essay. I loved the Ian Fleming passage, that list of his names is priceless.

  2. I found your post really interesting, thanks. I am just grappling with the how-to of naming characters myself: http://courtneykane.wordpress.com/2010/05/01/watsisname-the-delicate-art-of-naming-literary-babies/

    I like the idea of keeping a list of names heard and the connotations they carry.

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