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.