How do you choose the names for your novel's characters? Do you put as much effort into the names of your cast as you do your book's title—and how do you decide what names fit your story?
My experience this past week at the Florida Christian Writers Conference, plus the novels I read while traveling, prompted me to ponder what's in a character's name.
Boys Named Sue
Besides fifteen-minute appointments, this conference still lets people submit proposals and sample chapters for the faculty to critique. As I expected, the people whose work I reviewed ran the gamut from veterans to first-timers.
What I didn't expect was that the name of a novel's protagonist would cast a cloud over the entire work. But that's what happened.
The lead character's name was Shamrock. I envisioned a winsome Irish lass with a lilting brogue, her long auburn locks floating in the breeze over the heather.
Wrong. This Shamrock was a guy. In New York City. With conventionally named parents who had given their other child a normal name. What was going on?
I should have been prepared. The writer had targeted twenty-something readers and used an “edgy” style. (I think that's the euphemism for first-person, present-tense with random punctuation.) But a guy named Shamrock? Shades of that old Johnny Cash song.
Talking to another novelist the next day reassured me some writers remain dedicated to getting their character names right. I'm not sure how we got on the topic, but she told me how her parents came to name her Edwina. On first glance, I'd never have expected her to carry that name. But once I began to get to know her, the name fit perfectly.
She mentioned in passing how she never gave two major characters names that began with the same initial. Why risk confusing the reader? We talked about how names reflect their time and culture. And she pointed to a great source for credible names for people of a given place and generation: high school yearbooks.
During my travel, I enjoyed rereading John Dunning's 1995 New York Times “notable book of the year” The Bookman's Wake, a mystery that explores the dark side of the world of book collecting.
The woman who holds the key to the book's maguffin was born in 1969. Her family name is Rigby. Her parents named her Eleanor.
Through much of the novel, cop-turned-rare-book dealer Cliff Janeway tries to evade a determined Seattle police officer identified only as Quintana. The name suggests a man at odds with expectations. A scene near the end—when Janeway finally meets and teams up with Quintana—reinforces that impression.
I asked if he had a first name
“Shane,” he said, daring me not to like it.
But I couldn't play it straight. “Shane Quintana?”
. . . “I was named after Alan Ladd. Kids today don't even know who . . . Alan Ladd was.”
For the sake of later scenes, Dunning needed these characters to resolve their differences, and he also needed to show another side of the Seattle cop. Revealing an unexpected first name and the story behind it helped him accomplish those goals.
What's in a character name? Potentially a lot. Especially when the writer takes time with this key detail.