So, you’re going to write a novel. Congratulations! You just became the parent of a whole passel of baby characters. Now… what are you going to call them?
You may not think it is big deal to name characters. But it is. I mean, you can’t call them all “Fred.” You need a variety of names, some of which even may describe the character’s personality or background or desires.
As for me, I have used a variety of methods for naming my characters.
The first one is “what kind of a name would work?” And that is the process I used with the central character of my first novel. She was a goodhearted, everyday person, so the name “Maggie” just came to me. I liked the sound of it because it was a nice, plain, simple name.
Another method is to peruse online lists of first and last names for various groups and eras. For instance, I looked up Quaker names to help me come up with Eli’s ridiculously simple last name. Yes, Smith is a common English name, but it is also a common name among Friends. Millhouse, Eli’s brother-in-law’s last name, is also a Quaker last name. As a historical note: Millhouse was President Richard Nixon’s middle name. Oh, and “Nixon” is Quaker name, too.
When I created the two Irish girls who come into Maggie’s family in Seeing the Elephant, I checked out first and last Irish names and came up with Moira and Birgit Brennan. I did similar research for Josef Larsen, Gustav Schultz, and Adela Edler (although Adela’s last name comes from my family tree). New Jersey has a strong Dutch influence in some areas and so my books contain characters with the last name of Opdyke, Van Curen, Beekman, and Jonkers.
In the nineteenth century, people often turned to the Bible to name their children, so biblical names are common in the Saint Maggie series. Most obvious is Elijah Amos, whose mother must have had high hopes when naming him after not one but two prophets. Indeed, sometimes he does serve a prophetic function, especially through his newspapers. But the series also is home to Tryphena and Tryphosa (two women mentioned in one of the Apostle Paul’s letters), Sarah, Andrew, Lydia, Gideon, Samuel, Abigail, Leah, Josiah, Deborah, Nathaniel, James, Daniel, and so on.
One character, though, did not care for his biblical first name. The drummer in Heart Soul & Rock’n’Roll is known to one and all as Yankee Doodle. However, his real first name is Shadrack, from the biblical book of Daniel. The joke is it’s a nobrainer why he switched to “Yankee.”
Sometimes a character is named after a quality he or she possesses. Self-emancipated slave Matilda calls herself “Strong” rather than taking the name of the person who had owned her. She wanted to claim the part of herself that risked all to bring her daughter and herself to freedom.
Chester Carson was called “Mr. Carson” throughout Saint Maggie, but I changed it to “Carson,” because he revealed his dislike for his first name. Even though Eli prefers to call people by their first name when being familiar, he bows to Carson’s “Chester” ban.
Another way of naming is to take the historical or famous person approach. I named Frankie after Frances Willard, the president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union during a good chunk of the nineteenth-century. Ms. Willard’s nickname was Frankie. I liked it, so I stole it.
In Heart Soul & Rock’n’Roll, I called my male protagonist “Neil,” because I am a fan of Neil Innes, member of the Bonzo Dog Band, the “second 7th Python” (as he says) from Monty Python, star of the “Innes Book of Records,” and singer/songwriter. In the process of writing the book, Neil Gardner revealed that he disliked “Strong Oak,” the name his hippie parents gave him, and when he was of age named himself after Neil Young – a case of a character acting out and doing his own thing.
Some characters bear the name of towns. Notably Jeremiah Madison, taken from Madison, NJ, where my alma mater, Drew University, is located. and Carrie Hillsborough, who received her name because I grabbed the name in desperation form my current town of residence.
And then there are family names. Edgar Lape bears the last name of my great-grandfathers. Captain Morrison has my mother’s maiden name. Tryphena and Tryphosa Moore were given the last name of my father’s second cousin. I’ve also used the names of people I’ve known, such as Patrick, Dr. Lightner, and Sheriff Miller. Kenny of Heart Soul was named after a real homeless guy I knew.
Of course, there are times when I may start out with thinking I’m going to call a character one thing and change it later. I had decided Eli and Maggie’s baby would be Lillian but realized that the Smiths had been wrestling with faith all throughout Walk by Faith. That’s when I got I knew her name was Faith.
So, the next time you’re reading a novel or short story, pause for a moment and think about the names. Where did they come from? Why did the author use them? It may seem like a small thing, but often a great deal of thought went into it.