The F Words: Naming Treva

My first thought in naming the third character in The F Words was this: should her name end in a? That may strike you as a weird thought, but it’s one that always crosses my mind when naming a female character.

Fully one-third of all girls’ names in English end with the letter a. Of the current top ten girls’ names (Emma, Olivia, Ava, Isabella, Sophia, Charlotte, Mia, Amelia, Harper, Evelyn), seven end with a. This propensity of names to end in a is true in most Indo-European languages, partly because a was the ending of female Roman names, partly because adding a became the way a  male name was changed into a female name, as in Oliver/Olivia or Henry/Henrietta, Lauren or Lawrence/Laura.

Names from the Romance languages and Slavic languages are particularly high in female names ending in a. And, maybe because my own name ends in a, I gravitate toward such names. In She’s on First the hero is named Linda. (Though in Dirty Proof the protagonist is named Suzanne — so I’m not wedded to the a ending.)

Once I knew the character’s name would end in a, I proceeded to think about what it would be. Because Cole and Felipe’s names start with letters in the first-half of the alphabet, I wanted a name that started with a letter from the second-half of the alphabet. (Believe me, these considerations and decisions do help readers differentiate characters and recognize them as soon as they appear in another scene.)

Okay, then —  the third character would have a name that started with a letter from N-Z, and end in A. I had a gut feeling that the name should start with a blend, probably because neither Cole nor Felipe’s name starts with a blend. 

This feeling that the name should have a blend led me to consider the initial letters P (Pl, Pr), S (Sl, Sm, Sp, St), and T (Tr). I immediately seized on Tr and came up with the name Treva. As you can infer, it’s Trevor/Treva. The name satisfied me, and it’s a two-syllable name (though I wasn’t consciously trying for that), so there’s a nice balance in the syllable-count of Cole, Treva, Felipe.

I think it could become very boring if I discussed how and why I named each of the minor and not-so-minor characters in The F Words, so I won’t do that. But I do want to say something about naming one other character, and that is Cole’s ex-girlfriend, whom I first named Sydnye. I don’t remember why. But I do remember that everybody in my writing group objected to the name and to the spelling of the name. Every time they read a section of the book that contained Sydnye, they felt they were reading a typo. And they couldn’t remember who she was. (Maybe because of my exaggerated spelling of the name.)

Okay. I had to get rid of not only the weird spelling, but the name itself. But I couldn’t figure out what to replace it with. For weeks and weeks I went through baby-naming books and websites, skimming the names, hoping that a name would grab me as just-right for the character.

Nada.

And then one day I was reading about a current-day girls’ baseball team on which one of the players was named Paloma. Hmmm. Paloma. That was different. Contemporary. So in the second and third drafts of the The F Words, I named the character Paloma.

This time it was me, not my writing group, who couldn’t remember the name. As I was writing the drafts and came to a scene with Cole and . . . Cole and . . . what’s her name again? I kept having to look it up!

Obviously, no matter how lovely a name Paloma is, it wasn’t working for my character.

Back to the drawing board. Which meant back to the baby-naming books. This time I settled down into an easy chair with a pen and paper in hand and a cup of coffee by my side. I s-l-o-w-l-y went through the names again.

And when I got to the J’s — I found it! Jillian. Don’t know how or why I missed it the first time around. But it sounded right and felt right. And, as it turns out, the name works very well in one of the campaign-for-class-president scenes in which Jillian and Felipe are both running for the same office.

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The F Words is now available for Pre-Order on Amazon.

The F Words: Naming Cole and Felipe

Once a story idea comes to me, I spend months (sometimes years) getting to know my characters. Their sex and age come to me immediately, when I conceive of the story — but their names don’t. The names take a lot of thinking about. In the case of The F Words, the first name of the main character came to me after several days: Cole.

Cole is a modern-sounding first name. In the Middle Ages it was a shortened form of Nicholas, which it can still be today; but it’s also a shortened form of more modern-sounding first names such as Colton and Coleman. And, it has become a name in itself. So that part of it felt right.

When I looked up Nicholas, I was reminded that it comes from the Greek and means “victory of the people.” (Nike is the winged goddess of victory.) That felt super-right for my character, who, due to cause-and-effect, comes to fight for “the people.”

Even though it often plays no role whatsoever in a novel, I do like to give my characters an ethnic background. In Cole’s case, I decided that his forebears came from both Denmark and the Netherlands. Cole is tall, and people from northern Europe are genetically taller than people from southern Europe. Cole is also a cross-country runner. I don’t remember if I thought of that before I realized he was tall, or after I realized it. 

So then I slowly went through New Dictionary of American Family names, looking for a last name for Cole. Eventually I came across the name Renner, which sounded right. It’s of Dutch origin. And — here’s the interesting part — it means “One who carried messages on foot or horseback, a runner.” In the process of writing The F Words (a process that took eighteen months, counting rewrites) I completely forgot that Cole’s last name originally meant “one who carried messages.” But carrying messages ends up being an important part of the plot! Amazing how these things seep into a writer’s consciousness and come out when they’re needed.

Before I started to write my novel, I knew that Cole would have a best friend, and that friend would be Mexican-American. And — I felt the friend’s name had to start with F. That just seemed right for a book titled The F Words.

The first name that came to mind was Felipe . . . but I was also aware of Fernando and Francisco. Using online research, I found a list of the most popular Mexican boys’ names. Francisco was sixth in popularity. Fernando was fifteenth. Lower down in popularity (but still in the top 120) were Felipe, Fabiano, and Facundo. 

Out of these five, my first choice just felt right — and so Cole’s best friend since first grade is named Felipe.

Full Disclosure: My husband’s name is Phil, and I suspect that might have had something to do with my name choice. Phil is a kind, caring, gregarious person — and so is Felipe.

I like the fact that Cole is a one-syllable name and Felipe is a three-syllable name. This difference in syllable count adds a nice texture to the writing: a different texture than if both characters had one-syllable first names.

In a novel it often pays to have three main characters rather than two. With two characters, A and B, the writer can examine the relationship A-to-B and B-to-A.

But with three characters, a different dynamic enters the picture. A-to-B; B-to-A; A-to-C; C-to-A; B-to-C; C-to-B. By adding just one more character, the writer gets three times as many relationship and conflict situations to explore. In literature, “three” seems to be a magic number. Three attempts. Three wishes. Three little pigs. You get the point.

So I knew I’d have a third main character. I just didn’t know what her name would be.

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Character Names: Associations

One of the things beginning writers are warned against is starting multiple character names with the same letter of the alphabet. That’s because readers will inevitably get confused as to who the character is. In other words, don’t have a David and a Derrick in the same book. I failed to heed this warning when writing Dirty Proof, my first mystery. In fact, I failed badly. Frank Dragovic’s sister is named Stephanie; his fellow detective is named Sarah; and his love interest is named Suzanne. Aarrgghhhhh! I wish I could do this over, but, alas, I can’t. 

Another warning to all writers (not just beginning ones) is that in naming characters, it’s important to make the name fit with the era. I cringe when I read book reviews of romance historical fiction in which female characters have names such as Sienna or Courtney. For fiction to be believable to the reader, character names must ring true. 

One great way to get first names right is to use the Census Bureau information on-line and look at the listings of the most popular girls’ and boys’ names for each decade. I have used this source countless times, especially when writing workbooks, activity pages, and short historical pieces for classroom activity. Another name resource is old high school yearbooks. Or alumni magazines. I’m particularly fond of  using the obituaries in Harvard Magazine as a possible source for character names.

Before I wrote my first novel (She’s on First) I read many, many how-to books on writing the novel. Several of those books recommended naming characters after streets. This, if I recall, was so that a writer could always claim she didn’t name her characters after anybody in particular: she named them after a street — “This character isn’t named after a real person, Judge! She’s named after a street!”

During the time I was writing She’s on First we were traveling to Texas almost once a year to visit Phil’s parents. So as we drove I jotted down possible names, using towns, rivers, streets, and advertising signs in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas. And of course I tried to match names to a character’s “character.” Among the character names that I particularly enjoyed naming in She’s on First are Harland Abilene, catcher; Bobby Knuff, first baseman; and Frank Laughing, second baseman.

I confess that I made up the last name “Mowerinski” when I was trying to combine outfield grass with a Polish last name. Once I made it up, I loved it, and within seconds I immediately created a lawn-mower business for Big Al to build up after his retirement from baseball. 

It always kind of bothered me a bit that I had made up this name entirely, rather than taking an existing Polish name that seemed to fit the character. However, it rather pleases me that if you type the word “mowerinski” into Google, even now, 33 years after the publication of the novel, all hits go directly to She’s on First. 

The star of my early reader books is Waltur, a bear who misunderstands figures of speech: he takes them literally. Waltur is featured in two books, each book containing three stories. The first book is Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke, and the second book is Waltur Paints Himself into a Corner.

The most frequent question audiences ask about the Waltur books is: “Why did you spell Waltur with a U, and not an E.” I reply that I spelled it that way because it just seemed right to me. For one thing, the UR goes with URsine. For another, bears growl, and to me a growl sounds more URRRR than ERRR

There’s a negative result of my having spelled the name Waltur. The effect is that about 10=15% of people who write to me about the book say, “I love your bear Wilbur. He is so funny.”

Aarrgghhhhh! (Or should that be Uurrgghhhhh!?) My bear is not Wilbur, he is Waltur! 

But I realize that some people cannot keep names straight. They constantly mix up Phil and Paul, for example, or Joe and Joel, or Sheila and Sara. For that part of the population which mixes up names, be the names written or oral, it’s possible that there is no help. I suspect, though, that my using the “u” instead of “e” leads such people to immediately shunt the name Waltur to the brain cell that houses the name Wilbur.

So, when you’re thinking of naming a character in fiction, give careful consideration to whether the name is one that sits on the cusp of confusion. If it does, consider whether you can live with reader name mix-ups, or whether you can’t. If you can’t, consider changing the name of your character.

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Barbara Gregorich URges you to read Waltur Paints Himself into a Corner and Other Stories.

Character Names: Associations

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey names his main antagonist Nurse Ratched. With its overtones of “wretched” and “ratchet,” the name has only negative connotations. The homonym “ratchet” is especially powerful when you realize that a ratchet, through ever-increasing tension or locking-in, allows motion in only one direction. This name gives me bad shivers!

TheHamletAnother great character name is Flem Snopes, the antagonist of Faulkner’s Hamlet trilogy (The Hamlet; The Town; The Mansion). The first name is a homonym for “phlegm,” and to that I say Ugh and Yuk! The second makes me think of a lot of “sn” words, most of them negative, as in snot, snob, snoot, snout, snipe, snit, snide, and snicker.

Katniss Everdeen is a name I have mixed feelings about. I like the last name because it brings to mind the word “evergreen,” with its connotations not only of vigor and freshness (also of “green-ness” in the sense of “untried”), but also long-lastingness. And the “deen” part of the name suggests “dean,” which means “head,” or “leader.”

But then comes Katniss, which I partly like and partly dislike. I like the “Kat” part because the K is a strong sound. But I dislike the name tapering off into an “iss” ending, which is not strong. The name seems to end in weakness or hissing. Or both.

I consider the name Harry Potter absolutely perfect for J.K. Rowling’s intentions. In Britain Harry is an endearing name in its own right, but it’s also used as a familiar name for various King Henry heroes in Shakespeare’s plays. The name means “soldier” in Old English and “army ruler” in Scandinavian, both old meanings being good for Rowling’s purposes.

31cSFNuQF2L._BO1,204,203,200_The last name Potter is a magnificent choice, alluding perhaps to a potter’s field where the unclaimed are buried, touching on the commonality of all humans to one another. And just as strong is the association with pottery. Without the invention of pottery and the making of pots by potters, early peoples would not have been able to store water or seeds or grains or other foods. Pots sealed and protected a tribe’s food for the winter: food without which they could not survive. So the potter was a very, very important contributor to a tribe’s survival, growth, and prosperity.

Finally, there’s the TA-dum TA-dum sound of Harry Potter’s name. HAR-ry POT-ter. In poetry, a TA-dum foot is a trochee. The most common stress in the English language is iambic: ta-DUM ta-DUM. Shakespeare’s plays are written in iambic pentameter, for example. The trochee is less common, though it’s used a lot in children’s rhymes, and William Blake used it (TYger TYger BURning BRIGHT). I’ve always thought the trochee, in small amounts, a very strong and memorable beat — which is another reason why I love the name Harry Potter. Many English names are trochee names, but not all of them are two-trochee names. Jack RY-an is a one-trochee name and lacks the double-punch of HAR-ry POT-ter.

daniel-craig-james-bondBut trochee names just won’t do for some authors. I find it deliciously humorous that so many macho heroes of Anglo-Saxon origin have both a one-syllable first name and a one-syllable last name. To a macho hero, anything more than one syllable is just froufrou. Bond. James Bond. This name really connotes: I. Mean. Business.

Then there’s Clive Cussler’s action hero, Dirk Pitt. A dirk is a dagger, so we get connotations of steel and deadliness, as well as phallic connotations. A pit is bottomless and deadly. Both the word “dirk” and the word “pitt” end in a plosive (a consonant in which the air flow is interrupted, as in p, t, k). Words that end in plosives sound abrupt. Final. All readings of the name Dirk Pitt lead to one conclusion: Do Not Mess With!

There’s a lot to naming a character in fiction, and for any writer it’s worth the time spent thinking about the sound of names, the beat of names, and the associations attached to names.

Ho, Cool! — Naming Characters

I grew up on a street that had, to the best of my memory, nineteen houses. That’s nineteen different families. Their last names were of English, Irish, Polish, Italian, Croatian, Hungarian, and Czech origin. The kids I went to school with came from many different ethnic backgrounds — all of the above, and more.

Frowning  because books had no ethnic characters

Frowning because books had no ethnic characters

But the books I read as a child did not reflect the reality of the world I lived in. The characters in books always had English or Irish last names. In addition, nobody these characters interacted with had anything other than an Anglo-Saxon or Irish last name. While I loved the books I read, I nevertheless felt there was something different about them. Something that made me feel part of the books’ purpose was to exclude the kind of world I lived in.

Then came the social struggles of the 1960s and soon literature started looking a bit different. With the 1950s and especially the 60s and 70s, American authors began to include what we would call “ethnic” characters (ethnic as in “part of a subgroup”) — normal, regular people, or as normal or regular as any literary character can be.

It’s important for a writer to include characters that reflect the diversity of the world we live in. If your novel’s characters live in an exclusively Anglo-Saxon world, then, okay, give them English names. But if the characters happen to live in major or mid-sized cities of the US today, their names should reflect that world as it is today.

In Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies — a book that can serve as a guide to writing novels in general, and mystery novels in particular — I have a long chapter on naming characters. Ethnicity is just one of the factors I take into consideration. There’s also rhythm, starting letters, altering names, origins, and meaning.

NamesTwo books (both out of print) which I highly recommend for any fiction writer who’s in the process of naming characters: (1) Family Names: The Origins, Meanings, Mutations, and History of More than 2,800 American Names, by J. N. Hook and (2) New Dictionary of American Family Names, by Elsdon C. Smith.

Flipping through a few pages of New Dictionary at random, I find the following last names:

Cool, English — from Coole (cow’s hill) in Cheshire
Herrera, Spanish — a worker in iron, a smith
Ho, Chinese — to congratulate
Picone, Italian — dweller at the sign of the woodpecker
Pokorny, Czech, Polish — a humble or submissive person

For writers who must name persons and give them personality, character, and background, choosing an appropriate name adds to the depth of the character. When I teach writing fiction and naming characters, I allow students to use my copies of the two books I mentioned. Almost every student is fascinated by these books and what they reveal about name meanings and name origins.

Fiction writers should be fascinated with last names and want to know more about them, in order to help create believable characters and in order to more accurately reflect the cultural setting these characters live in. If you can find these books at a used bookstore or online, consider investing in them. You — and your named characters — will be very happy you did.