What’s in a Name?

A helluva lot actually.

I only wish I were posting about the eloquence and beauty of Shakespeare. No, I’m continuing my series about things I wish I’d known when I started writing. You can go back and read my posts on The Big Hook and Understanding Deep POV. Today, I’m posting about naming characters and towns. It seems so simple, right?

I’m a panster. I don’t really pre-plot, except in my head. (Although, I’m trying to do more plotting, but that’s a different post altogether:) My manuscripts manifest as a general plot and two main characters. I know the first scene and often the final scene. Everything in the middle is a big black scary hole. But, I must have the two MCs named before I can start my writing process. Their names and the development of their personalities go hand in hand for me.

Occasionally something will trigger the perfect name or it will come to me in a moment of clarity. Those moments are rare. Usually, I end up flipping through my handy 1,000 Baby Names book. (I had shed all baby items well before I started writing, so imagine my husband’s shock when he opened a delivery box to find that!) I like using a baby name book because they have the origin of the name, and if you already have the surname chosen, you can flip straight to the letter you want.

The other resource I’ve used to name secondary characters is the government list of most popular baby names for the birth year of my character. This came in handy when I was naming teenage football players in my contemporary series. You probably don’t want to pick ‘Richard’ for a teenager today—a little old-fashioned. In the same vein, ‘Jennifer’ would work well for a 40-year-old, but not so well for a teenager.

For surnames, I keep one of the dinosaur phone books that are still printed and thrown on my doorstep every year. There are probably on-line resources, but it is SO easy to flip to the letter you have in mind and scan until you find a fitting last name.

For naming fictitious towns, I use my (again old-fashioned) paper atlas. The town in my football books is called Falcon. When I was debating whether to set the series in Tennessee or Alabama, I was skimming over towns in middle Tennessee. Falcon, Tennessee exists. No, I’ve never been there, and I decided to move my fictitious town to Alabama.

Now, I shall clue you in on my downfall. Once I have the two MCs named I come up with secondary characters on the fly because I don’t want to spend the time flipping for names. Invariably, my secondary characters end up with names starting with the same first letter as one of my main characters. It’s some sort of brain reflex, I can’t seem to stop. In my first Falcon football book, I had the following: Dalt, Dixon, Dave, and Darcy. I also had Reed and Robbie, and Ada and Avery. Guess what I ended up doing? Changing a boatload of names. One of them changed from Reed to Logan. He is the hero in my second book, and I have a difficult time thinking of him as Logan when he was Reed for many, many months. And, poor, poor Dave went through the following transformation: DaveMikeAndyTyler.

Also watch out for using rhymey names or names with the same cadence. Groups could include, Sarah and Leah, or Gabrielle and Isabelle, or Landon and Grayson. I don’t care if your characters are brothers and sisters. DO NOT get cutesy. It ends up being confusing and frustrating for the reader who can’t keep the characters straight until a quarter of the way through the book.

And, my last tip…don’t do a blanket find/replace if you do decide to change a character’s name. I did that with Andy to Tyler, not thinking about how Word works. Therefore, Vandy became VTyler and sandy became sTyler. Of course, in the way of the universe, I realized this about a half hour after sending it off to my agent. I proceeded to bang my head against the desk. I never mentioned it and neither did she. My guess is that she’s seen it all before. But, you bet your bippy I sent her a clean, fixed copy before she submitted it to editors!

What are some of your tips for naming characters? What annoys you about names when you are reading a book?

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