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One hundred thirty-eight.
That’s how many named characters I have in the Mom Zone books, so far. That number doesn’t include those anonymous waitresses, store clerks, and elevator-riders who people my books, described only in a passing sentence or two.
That’s one hundred thirty-eight different names I’ve used. When I wrote the first Mom Zone mystery, Moving is Murder, I intentionally avoided using the first names of close friends or family. I didn’t want anyone to think I was writing about them. Not that it really mattered. No matter what the character’s name, some people still thought that certain characters were people from my life, which surprised me since I went to great lengths to make my fictional characters different—in some cases, complete opposites—of real people. People see what they want to in fiction, I guess.
But back to my topic, names. I’m knocking around ideas for the next book, which brings up that task of thinking up new names. Now, I know there’s no shortage of names, particularly since Gwyneth Paltrow expanded the possibilities when she brought fruit names into vogue, but I’m wondering is there ever a point when you run out of “good” names? Think about authors like Phyllis Whitney, Elizabeth Peters, and J.D. Robb. Think of how many names they’ve come up with—the mind boggles! Do they keep a list so they don’t reuse names?
I’m sure there comes a point when an author has to start over with some of the more generic names, like John and Anna. After all, you can’t have a novel with only exotic names like Heathcliff, Clementine, and Philomena.
Naming characters is one of the most fun and, at the same time, most frustrating parts of writing a book. I love picking the names. I have fun reading the meanings and having that either work with the character or contrast against the character. On the other hand, it’s frustrating because I often have a subconscious favorite letter and end up with a string of names beginning with the same letter: Nick, Nadia, Nathan, etc. If that happens, I have to go back and switch someone’s name to something new and then I always stumble at the new name and think, “Who is that? Oh, yeah, he was Nick.”
So, I want to know…do you keep track of names? Do you use any name, or are there some you avoid? Have you every had your editor ask/tell you to change a name? What’s your favorite character name? Got any good name suggestions for me?
I have a horrible time with names. I was going over my suspense novel and realized I had renamed the cat from Chapter 3 to Chapter 5. Of oourse there was about a year inbetween writing the two.
So I went back and made a list of my characters, their names and what I was missing. I tend not to do last names for characters. Of the 8 characters in the book, only three have full names. I guess I see that as formal.
Love the name Hannah, but I think I’ve already mentined that I didn’t realize the scope of the Hannah Montana craze when I was writing.
Got another rejection yesterday. My optomistic shell is starting to crack.
by Lynn on April 2nd, 2008 at 6:25 am
Hang in there, Lynn. Rejection is tough, but it is the sign that you’re a true writer, not a huge comfort right now, I know. I do the list of character names, too. That’s usually where I realize I have too many similar names.
by Sara on April 2nd, 2008 at 6:45 am
I use a couple of tactics for names.
First, I keep a spreadsheet of names with physical attributes, brief background and sometimes what they are wearing (mostly if they are one scene wonders).
I read that you should try not to have two characters in a book with names that start with the same letter, especially Steve and Stephanie, or John and Jacob will interact in a scene. Being able to sort that spreadsheet alphabetically helps.
Of course I broke that rule with nicknames. Co-workers and frineds, Jack “Dallas” Wheeler and Doctor Brandon Stiles become Dallas and Doc.
by Will Bereswill on April 2nd, 2008 at 7:15 am
Baby name books - and these days, websites - are great. And even Nora Roberts/JD Robb and Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels used some of the same names over again, you know. Off hand I can’t remember any of Robb’s, although I know they’ve struck me while I’ve been reading, but between the Michaels and Peters books, there are quite a few Johns, Michaels, and Richards. Just like there are a lot of Johns, Michaels, and Richards in life.
In my first book, too many of the secondary characters’ names started with M. Until I read an article by Dana Cameron, saying that all of her secondary character names started with M, too. For something else, I had a series of characters called Danny, Eddie, Andy, Charlie and Roy, and was told I had to change them because they all sounded the same. Joey, Zoe and Chloe is just as bad as Jennifer, Julie and Joan, I guess. Especially once you start calling Jennifer Jenny and Joan Joanie…
by JennieB on April 2nd, 2008 at 8:14 am
I use the internet’s many baby-name sites to help with names sometimes, but mostly they just come to me. I do keep a list of characters for each book (something I started after my second book when I kept switching people’s names in the middle and confusing the hell out of my CP). I also use names of people I’ve met. For instance my villians sometimes have names similar to someone I’ve disliked (but not always) and the good guys have names fashioned after good people I’ve known. Other than keeping to the rule that names should be easy enough not to be tripped over by the reader, and the one about not having same sounds/letters, I pretty much just wing it.
by B.E. Sanderson on April 2nd, 2008 at 8:20 am
Hey Sara, I was at the library last night, and Getting Away is Deadly was face out on the shelf, so yeah for you!
As far as names, I find some great combinations in my spam e-mail box. Sometimes I combine first and lasts from different people, but it definitely makes it easier to say “No, that name has nothing to do with you” when someone asks (okay, only one person has, but in the lucky future…) And lastly, I know it’s a conventional thing, but I get irked when a cozy has most or all of the characters named with first and last names starting with the same letter - Penelope Pruitt, Jean Jarvis, Andrew Adams … just a little too ….
by Kate Hathway on April 2nd, 2008 at 8:53 am
I hate picking out names! Although that feeling probably extends to last names more than first names. I tend to lose track of names and realized I needed to keep a character list as I read through the first 5 pages of my WIP and one character had five different names…
by Stephanie on April 2nd, 2008 at 9:37 am
I collect business cards when I’m out and about. I love to mix and match names that way!
by Laura on April 2nd, 2008 at 10:12 am
Hi Will. Unfortunately, I’m not a big fan of spreadsheets. I’m more of a paper and pen kind of girl. I find it almost impossible to have every character name start with a different letter of the alphabet. I always have some crossover, but I try to make the names sound different, too, especially if they have the same beginning letter.
by Sara on April 2nd, 2008 at 12:13 pm
Other sources I’ve found useful for names are the phone book and newspapers. I’ve gotten some really interesting ones for secondary characters from the Wedding Announcements and Obituary pages!
by Texas Lynn on April 2nd, 2008 at 12:15 pm
I love baby name book, JennieB. One of my favorites is “Beyond Jason and Jennifer”—great title.
by Sara on April 2nd, 2008 at 12:19 pm
Hi B.E. I only use names from real people to name the military bases in my book. The bases are fictionalized versions of real bases. All the base names have something in common—sort of an inside joke for me, but so far no readers have caught on, or if they have, they haven’t email me about it! It may take a few more books for the pattern to become apparent anyway.
by Sara on April 2nd, 2008 at 12:24 pm
Thanks for the news, Kate! It’s always nice to hear the book is getting out there. There’s only so much I can do in my own neck of the woods to promote it and it’s always wonderful to hear that it’s being noticed in other places.
by Sara on April 2nd, 2008 at 12:26 pm
Hey Stephanie. Last names are harder than first names, sometimes. I don’t want mine to be too generic.
I use this name generator sometimes: http://www.kleimo.com/random/name.cfm
It uses U.S. Census names and you can vary the search between common and totally obscure names. Love that phrase, “totally obscure.”
I just ran a search for “totally obscure” names and here’s what I got:
1. Warner Melliere
2. Virgilio Codey
3. Leif Nanthanong
4. Mariel Dekorne
5. Louvenia Hindmarsh
6. Alysha Inserra
7. Lesia Gamewell
8. Salome Maidonado
9. Kati Kirchberg
10. Lera Alie
by Sara on April 2nd, 2008 at 12:34 pm
Hi Laura! I’ve never used business cards, but I do tend to look at whatever is around me when I’m writing—magazine and newspaper mastheads are always on my desk—and mix and match from those.
by Sara on April 2nd, 2008 at 12:35 pm
I saw your book this weekend too, Sara. At my local Books-a-Million. It was a hardcover, facing front. Have they always been hardcovers, or is that new? If so, congratulations. I also saw Diana’s new book, incidentally; not a hardcover, but facing front, as well.
by JennieB on April 2nd, 2008 at 1:46 pm
Another sighting! News like that does this author\’s heart good. Thanks for letting me know, JennieB.
Yes, Kensington always puts the hardcover out first, then eleven months later they put out the mass market paperback with a teaser chapter for the next hardback. So far, I have to say, the hard/soft combo seems to work really well. The hardcover opens so many doors for reviews and library purchases. The paperback seems to draw more attention from book groups and readers who purchase lots of books, which I totally understand. There\’s a big difference between $22 and $6.99.
by Sara on April 2nd, 2008 at 8:27 pm
I’m a little late in the game, but when I wrote my first novel, I went to the FBI Most Wanted Terrorists list and mixed and matched first and last names.
by Will Bereswill on April 3rd, 2008 at 8:27 am
Excellent source, Will. Did you use it for good guys, bad guys, or just anyone?
by Sara on April 4th, 2008 at 10:17 am
Just my terrorist group. It seemed appropriate.
by Will Bereswill on April 4th, 2008 at 10:49 am
by Sara on April 4th, 2008 at 12:44 pm
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