What’s in a Name?

Ann H Gabhart Ann's Posts, One Writer's Journal

One thing they never tell you about child raising is that for the rest of your life, at the drop of a hat, you are expected to know your child’s name and how old he or she is. ~Erma Bombeck

That’s true for mamas and also for writers. I’ll be giving a book talk and somebody will ask something about one of the characters in my book. They will have forgotten the name, but they expect me to remember. That’s certainly understandable. They didn’t invent them and live with them for a year or more while they were writing their stories. No, that was me, but sometimes the names slip away, especially if it wasn’t a major character in the story.

You see, there are a lot of people to name in a novel. Of course you start out with the main characters, your hero and heroine. Then you start fleshing them in with family members and friends. Think about all the people in your own extended family. Add in the people you went to school with. Now the ones you’ve worked with. Oh, and all those people at church. And don’t forget your Facebook friends. 

Names circle us like a swarm of bees. Sometimes the names stick and rise up to our lips when we need to speak the name. Sometimes the name is firmly entrenched in our brain, but it refuses to come out where we can say it. At least, not when we want it to. It generally shows up hours later while we’re thinking about something totally different. The name will pop into our head out of the blue and sometimes we’ll say we knew it started with a “J” or whatever letter. 

I have named dozens and dozens of characters. Some years ago, I started keeping a record of my major characters’ names. That’s supposed to help keep me from using the same names over and over. I tend to like some names more than others. 

I’m editing a book I wrote several years ago that never found a publisher. I decided I needed to change one of my secondary character’s name. I have seen other writers ask their Facebook friends for help with name, so I decided to do the same. I asked what they would name the small town newspaper editor. He’s the kind of guy that sort of rubs people the wrong way with his questions since they feel he’s always trying to get a story out of them. But he’s not a bad guy. He does want the town to do well, but he also wants to sell newspaper. He’s in his late thirties and the story is set in the 1990’s here in Kentucky. His last name is Leland.

I had originally named him Miles which I do like, but it’s too much like my main character’s name, Michael. Readers might get confused if they were reading fast about who was who. So I asked my Facebook friends what they would name this guy. And before morning I had over 80 comments. Now, after a few days, I’ve gotten around 125 names. 

So tonight, for fun, I wrote down all the great suggestions. The amazing thing is that in all those names, there weren’t all that many repeat suggestions. Clark was the most suggested name with 7. Phil or Phillip was runner-up with 6. Most of the names were single suggestions. Everybody had a different idea of what to name my pesky little editor. I wanted a one syllable name and there were many suggestions that had me nodding my head and thinking, yes, that might work. But he’s just one guy and so he only needs one name. I’ve already tried Lloyd. No one suggested that name. And Kyle. Two or three suggested that name. Those names didn’t seem to fit. And so, right now I’m going with Hank. That was suggested by a couple of people. 

Hank Leland. What do you think? Does that sound like a pesky newspaper man who is always ready to dig for a story? If not, what do you suggest? 

Naming characters is actually a fun part of writing fiction. But I do like for the name to fit. Sometimes that takes some brainstorming before a writer can settle on the perfect name. And sometimes that name gets changed and then changed again. 

No wonder I can’t remember some of my characters’ names. Could be, I’m still considering changing those names. LOL.