Naming characters is an interesting and somewhat daunting process.
I use a variety of methods. The first one is “Hmm… what name would a work for a woman living in the mid-nineteenth century?” In truth, I don’t know where I got Maggie’s name from. I have a step-aunt Margie and a friend from another church named Margie – but I don’t recall knowing any Maggies. I guess I just liked the sound of it. Maggie is a nice, plain name.
Back in the day when we had phone books, I used to go through those. Now I peruse online lists of first and last names for various ethnic groups and various eras.
Names taken from the Bible were popular in the nineteenth century, and I can readily pull up those without even going into the Bible. Hence, Elijah, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Sarah, Andrew, Lydia, Gideon, Nathaniel, James, and so on. I also looked up Quaker names to help me out. Eli’s last name, Smith, was a common Quaker name, as is Millhouse, his brother-in-law’s last name.
A character may be named after one of his or her qualities. For instance, escaped slave Matilda has the last name of Strong because that is what she had to be to escape – and in the story it is a name that she chose for herself.
Then there is the historical approach. Frankie is named after Frances Willard, long-time president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union during the nineteenth-century. Ms. Willard’s nickname was Frankie. I liked it and promptly stole it.
A couple of other characters bear the name of towns. Jeremiah Madison’s last name was taken from Madison, NJ, where my alma mater, Drew University, is located. And when I created Carrie, I was desperate for a last name and saddled her with Hillsborough, where I had just moved. I got Edward Caldwell’s last name from Caldwell, NJ. I just liked the sound of the name. Although once upon a time I used to go to a hair dresser who worked in Caldwell!
Sometimes something feels right. I’ve always liked the name Lindsay, the protagonist in Heart Soul & Rock ‘n’ Roll. For a last name, I took Mitchell, which was the name of a character in an unpublished manuscript. Now, here’s a weird thing, one of my friends has a friend by the name of Lindsey Mitchell. Either I saw the name and my subconscious said, “hey, those two names go together” or whether I consciously chose the two is probably a moot point. As for Neil Gardner, I took his first name from one of my favorite musicians, Neil Innes – but in the book, Neil says he named himself after Neil Young! My characters play fast and loose with me at times.
One can also resort to family names. Edgar Lape bears the same last name as one of my great-grandfathers, and Captain Morrison has my mother’s maiden name. Captain Frost bears my great-grandmother’s name. Tryphena and Tryphosa Moore were given the surname as one of my father’s second cousins. I’ve also been known to use the names of people I’ve known, such as Patrick, Dr. Lightner, and Sheriff Miller.
Finally, I may start out with a name and then change it later. An example of this is when I had planned to call the baby in Walk by Faith “Lillian.” Then I realized that the characters had wrestled with faith throughout the book and I got dope-smacked. Duh! Her name had to be Faith.
Thus, ends my tour of the wonderful world of naming people in my books and scripts. It makes me sympathize with Adam in the Bible’s creation story, who had the task of naming all the animals and plants. Glad that wasn’t me.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder