As a former teacher, I’m well aware of the old joke about the pregnant teacher who can’t think of a good name for the upcoming baby because each name she thinks of has some darker association with a former student. “I can’t name him ‘Ben’ because of that teenager I had in class named Ben who was always whispering obscene things under his breath to the girls who sat around him.” This problem doesn’t matter when naming characters rather than children.
When I’m writing mysteries, I keep a notebook full of the names of people and places in my mystery series set in the small town of Endurance, Illinois. It helps me choose names for new characters and it keeps me from repeating names I’ve used before. Since I’m currently on the third book and I’ve peopled a pretty good slice of the town, I need to be careful about how I name new characters. With that in mind, here are ten of the ideas I remember when I’m thinking about character names.
First, I read a lot so I have to make sure I don’t subconsciously use names I have read before in books. One of my favorite sleuths is Spenser in the Robert Parker novels. Spenser makes sure the reader understands that he has the letter “s” twice in his name because of the poet, Edmund Spenser. Parker’s detective is quite the poetic philosopher. Perfect name. I will never use that in my novels.
Second, I need to make sure I don’t use a name and location of a real person I’ve known in my past. I found myself subconsciously doing this with a minor character who had the first name of a long-ago college roommate, and the character lived in the former roommate’s current city. Obviously, my brain had connected the two. A week later, I realized what I had done. Switch that name.
Third, the main character has to have a name I love because I will be using it a great deal in more than one book. Grace Kimball, my main character, has such a name. The concept of “grace” in religion has always been an awesome idea to me. Ditto the concept of “grace under pressure” in Hemingway’s novels. “Grace” is also the middle name of a loved granddaughter, and it’s a beautiful concept when used as “graceful.” Then, of course, there was Grace Kelly, a beautiful American film star. “Kimball” was simply a last name that came into my head when I wasn’t thinking about names at all. But it works well with Grace.
Fourth, I never bring in too many names or characters at once. I introduce characters gradually so the reader can feel secure in knowing who’s who. When I began to write my third Endurance mystery, I was going to write about the local Endurance school board. Eventually, I changed that plot concept because it was too confusing to introduce seven or eight board members at once. So, I try to introduce characters in unique ways and not too closely together.
Fifth, I make names memorable so the reader won’t have to page back to figure out who this character is thirty pages later. For example, my detective is TJ Sweeney, a decidedly detective-sounding name. Not until much later in the book does the reader learn that the “TJ” stands for Teresa Johanna.
Sixth, I make sure my main characters have names with different vowel combinations and different first letters. This makes it easier for the reader to remember which character is which. I don’t have a Sharon, Susan, Sandy, and Shauna in the same story.
Seventh, I believe a great way to introduce humor is to use a name to indicate what a character is or isn’t. In my small town of Endurance, the mayor’s name is Mayor Blandford. And, yes, he is bland. I also include a character with a slobbering, ugly pet dog like the Bordeaux bulldog in Turner and Hooch. The dog’s owner named him “Adonis,” a name from mythology that symbolizes a handsome male. This dribble-mouthed dog is anything but.
Eighth, I often use names that reflect the history from the small town of Endurance, Illinois. Grace discovers that Endurance had a huge Swedish population in its past because she researches a story involving Gustav Swensen. In checking out his grave at the cemetery, she discovers Ahlstroms, Olofssons, and several other Swedish family names. In current Endurance, she drives impatiently along at 10 mph behind Nub Swensen, probably a descendent of Gustav, who doesn’t get the idea that 35 mph doesn’t equal 10 mph, a common malady in a small town, and one of this author’s pet peeves.
Ninth, I describe secondary characters with just a first or last name or the job they do such as “the janitor” or the “train porter.” The readers will not see them more than once or twice, so they don’t have to waste brain cells remembering them.
Tenth, I use different names for characters only if I make sure the reader understands what I’m doing. Otherwise, confusion reigns. Grace would call her friend “TJ,” but others would call her “Detective” or “Detective Sweeney.” Her boss, Stephen Lomas, might yell “Sweeney.” And just to vary descriptions, “TJ” can sometimes be referred to as “the detective.” But I have to be careful not to confuse readers with multiple names.
When I first began writing, I assumed that character names could simply be anything you wanted them to be. Not so. You really have to consider all of these ideas when coming up with names for your creations.