We asked authors who write on the clean end of the spectrum how they come up with all those characters’ names and how they remember who’s who as they write. Here’s the inside scoop.
Charmain Zimmerman Brackett – Most of the time, they just come to me. I have looked up names every now and then, but for specific reasons. My latest series is based in my hometown of Augusta, GA so I needed some Southern sounding names. I also looked up articles on favorite double names. One way to remember everyone’s name is to keep the list of characters minimal. If the writer can’t remember them, then how is a reader supposed to remember them? Also, my “characters” are real people to me especially the main characters. I know their backstories and their favorite colors. They are people; they wake me up at night and talk to me.
Michael Lynes – I remember them because they become ‘real’ to me in some sense.
Authors are often extremely busy people so we try not to be too pushy when we can tell they’re in a hurry. Nonetheless, when we pressured Michael slightly as to whether he has tricks up his sleeves to decide which names to use, he told us the names “completely pop in. Especially their nicknames and the names they call other people.”
Linda Ellen – That’s a good question! Sometimes names can be hard, and now with ten books, I’m having to scramble and not use the same ones. I write historical romance, and many times I’ve found old fashioned sounding names for secondary characters on census records for that year. Sometimes if I need a last name for a character mentioned one time, I look over at my Facebook chat list and pick one from who is on, lol. First names of my main characters started out being names I loved, and then I started honoring loved ones and friends (a friend named Terry is the hero’s name for one book. Grandson Finn is the hero for another. Co-worker Mary June is heroine for another, etc.). How I keep them straight is I keep a note file open side by side with my master file as I’m writing. When I create a new character, I click over and type it into the note file.
Jessica Marie Holt – Some names just come to me, as though the character was a real person who always had that name. Most others I struggle with. I tend to want to name every older man George and every younger man Jackson, and after that my creativity sort of taps out. For my historical fictions, I googled the most popular names in the 1860s, and looked at the US census records. Then, because the series takes place here in my area of North Carolina, I have recently been looking at history books and gravestones to get ideas for future names that sound local/regional. For contemporary names, I use baby name lists, popular name lists, and I look at TV credits and street names. Some of my characters have “placeholder” names until the end of the book, because I struggle so much with the decision. Keeping the names straight once I choose them is easy, though. They’re like real people. I might occasionally mix up them up, like I would in real life, but deep down I always know who everyone is, and what their names are.
Richard Houston – I put a list of characters at the front of my books with a short description of who they are. In one book, I even drew a chart to show their relationships. I do this a much for myself as my readers.
Another question you didn’t ask, but I’ll answer is how do I keep track of time. I put the day of the seek and the date in brackets on every scene and chapter heading of my manuscript. I remove those before the book is published.
These are tricks I’ve only used in my last two books after I found I couldn’t keep track of either one in my previous books.
Arthur Daigle – Some character names are related to what they are or their occupations. For example, I have two trolls named London and Brooklyn, since in legends trolls often live under bridges. I have a goblin alchemist called Vial, after the glass container used in chemistry.
In other cases I’m trying to defy expectations. Heroic leads often have names that imply strength, such as Stone, Rock, Hawk and so on. I named my main character William Bradshaw to make him sound ordinary.
Lastly, each character has to have a name that is both pronounceable and different enough from the names of all other characters. Some fantasy authors create highly complex names that look like the alphabet got tossed in a blender. Those are hard for readers to say, and I feel that makes it harder to remember. Having character names too close together may make readers mistake one for the other.
Debbie Brown – I’m always paying attention to names, but strangely enough, I usually wait for my characters to tell me their names. I remember one time, where i was in the middle of a scene and this character walks in… I had no idea who he was or what he was doing…
Turns out, he was very helpful and definitely needed, lol. I had to wait to hear somebody say his name to know what it was.
Crazy stuff ya just can’t make up.
Laurean Brooks – I don’t have a problem remembering the first names of my characters since my books usually don’t have more than 8 or 10. I name them according to their looks and personalities. My current WIP (Western) has hero “Clint” (rugged name for a cowboy), and heroine “Emily” a pretty name. For the goofy buck-tooth dentist, who gives Emily a tough time, his name is “Wendell”, Another lady who is pursuing Wendell, is “Prudence.” This gives a visual of shy and a little homely. As for Characters’ names, I have a book published in the late 70s titled “Beyond Jennifer and Jason.” I paid 50 cents for it at a Library sale, a decade ago. It’s been worth it’s weight in gold many times over. The “baby name” book lists many popular baby names from 2 centuries ago and up to the 1980s, and their origins. It also lists names that portray personalities. Like macho names for men, pretty names for ladies. Suggestion: If you purchase this book from Amazon, get the original version. I later bought the updated “Beyond Jennifer and Jason, Madison & Montana.” It does not contain half the information and listings as “Beyond Jennifer and Jason.”
Jessica L. Elliott – Depends on the project. One name came to me because I have a snarky author friend who recommended it in jest. Turns out Allisatravondarestra was just the right name for my character, who incidentally much prefers to go by Allie. My readers prefer that too! Haha.
But it’s a toss up. Some characters come into my head fully-formed with a name already attached. Others, I spend days searching my worn-out baby name book for just the right name. I really relate to the scene in The Man Who Invented Christmas where Dickens is trying to discover the right name for his protagonist. Just as Scrooge appeared to him, once I’ve got the name, the character comes to life.
As far as keeping track of them, I’ve got a spreadsheet I try to remember to fill out.
Katherine Karrol – I have an easy time keeping track of characters because not only are they as real to me as people in the world outside my head, but they pop up in multiple books in the series.
Most of the names are ones that just jumped into my head as fitting a particular character. I was having a hard time coming up with the name that felt right for one of my leading men, so I started thinking through my favorite NFL teams. I didn’t even realize it at the time, but his name ended up being a combo of two players on my favorite team. The irony is that he wasn’t the athlete in his family or a very alpha guy.
I have a list of names that has grown to include first and last for males and females, towns, businesses, and places around the fictitious county my series is set in. I’m incorporating more names of town fathers from the area my county is modeled after, too.
I try not to use names of people I know, but I have used some of my ancestors’ surnames. I made an exception once and named a lighthouse after my grandmother. I figured no one would know that Marvel was an actual person’s name!
Rachel John – I put a list of the characters at the bottom of the document until I have them memorized, but I do struggle with not using the same ones from book to book. I seem to have a problem with wanting to use Jasmine as the bad girl/ex-girlfriend character. And I just realized I had Lottie twice in the same series and had to do a find/replace on my current WIP. Find/replace can get tricky if you have a name like Dan because of words like dance. Also, I have it in my editing checklist to search for the name I started with because my brain will want to keep using it after I’ve changed it.
Lea Carter – I got the names for my Coddiwomple series from the Basque language, Euskara. I didn’t always use whole words, but that allowed me to choose names with meaning that wouldn’t be recognized as everyday words. It would sound silly to name an older woman in the village ‘mother,’ for example, but naming her ‘Ama’ sounds fine!
I’ve also learned to keep a separate document called “Who’s Who” for each setting.
Margaret Skea – All but my main family in my Scottish series were real people – the problem that posed was that they weren’t very imaginative re Christian names in the 16th century – so keeping track for me was hard never mind for readers. I have lists pinned up with ages etc to keep me on track and supply a character list at the front of the books. Ironically, when I had a free choice, I couldn’t decide on a Christian name for the main character until the very end of the second book, so he survived two whole books on just his surname!
Ruth O’Neil – In my current WIP I had to come up with seven names for main characters and they all had to have meaning. Some were easier than others, but then I came to that one that just wouldn’t come out. But then, after one last ditch effort to name this character, I found exactly what I had not been looking for. I found a name, but I also found a whole background for her to write about. Zena became a Greek with a history that no one knew about.
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