Naming Characters

by Meredith Cole

Some characters come named–just like that. There’s no stress or worry. You know their name just as you know everything else about them (their favorite foods, the color of their hair, and the car they drive) right away. Other characters take a bit more thought and it takes a while to find the perfect name for them.

I don’t remember naming Lydia McKenzie in POSED FOR MURDER and DEAD IN THE WATER. She just came along with a name one day. As I got to know her, I learned about her penchant for vintage clothes and her desire to take murder recreation photos. But the secondary characters were more challenging for me to name. I had Italian American private eyes, a Puerto Rican detective, a French gallerist, and various artists. And yes, you can’t name several people with the same first initial. It’s way too confusing.

My first strategy was to use the Brooklyn phone book. Brooklyn has every single ethnic group imaginable so I just went shopping there for the perfect Italian name. D’Angelo. Angels. Lydia’s bosses certainly don’t seem like angels, but they grow on you. They have more heart than she thinks, and they introduce her to an exciting new profession–becoming a detective herself.

Romero popped quickly into my head as the name for the homicide detective/love interest. I didn’t realize until later how close it was to “Romeo”… It’s taking Lydia a little longer to figure out that he’s the man for her.

If a name doesn’t occur to me, I sometimes try one out for awhile. One character I called “Andy” until I realized he was a bad guy. My step-father is also an Andy, and I didn’t want to use his name for someone awful. Think of the awkward Thanksgiving conversations! So I changed it.

One of my pet peeves when I read a book is names that don’t fit a character at all–the name is too old or too young for them, or totally in the wrong time period. You wouldn’t name a Medieval maiden “Tiffany” even if there was an occasional Medieval maiden with that name. It just sounds too 80’s pop star. And there may be one or two thirteen-year-old girls running around named Susan in America, but believe me it’s not very common. Susan was a name that was wildly popular in the 50’s, so it would be great for a 60-year-old woman.

A great way to find just the right name for someone–one that really fits–is to check out the social security website. There you can find out the top 100 names for any year–and you can even look up states! That’s not to say you should feel limited by those, but it’s a great way to find out what the kids will all be named in kindergarten in five years. And you can get a better sense of what sounds are particularly popular (Jayden, Brayden, Hayden–or–Hannah, Anna, Savannah)–especially if you don’t have a young kid at home and don’t spend all you time on the playground. It’s also interesting to see how names in the south differ from those in the north east… (Did I mention this is dangerous if you’re on a deadline–?)

I like to give main characters stand out names that not everyone has–but secondary characters that I want to stay in the background need to blend a little more. And I always keep the first initials different so they don’t all blend one into the other…

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