Monday, February 3, 2014

A Girl Called Gus - The Art of Naming Characters

I've always been fascinated by names. Probably because Gae-Lynn is so uncommon. But having a weird first name isn't enough for my family. I'm also blessed with an unusual nickname. Seems my paternal grandfather held me as a howling, red-faced newborn and said, "She looks like a Gus."

And that was that.
Family and friends call me Gus, I'm Auntie Gus to my nieces and nephews, and my husband calls me 'Gus the Destroyer' because it ain't been built that I can't break. In fact, Gus is the one word I hear in any circumstance. (Watching people react to a girl called Gus is pretty humorous.)

My name and nickname are part of who I am, how I define myself, and perhaps how others define me. If I had to choose which name, Gae-Lynn or Gus, suited me best, I'd struggle. Both are me.

Names are important, aren't they? Parents agonize over what to call their offspring. Some believe that a name influences their child's personality and future success and happiness. Some delay naming their kids until after birth. In certain families, the naming of a child can divide loyalties or guarantee inheritances.

Sid and her first calf

[We have no kids and there's no money hanging in the balance, but the name game affects us, too. Our cows have names, usually influenced by their personalities. Sid Vicious has a quiff and an erratic personality like the late punk rocker. Sweet One simply is. Our bull is Elvis because of the peculiar way his lip curls when he's chasing the ladies.]

Just as in 'real' life, choosing a name for your characters is important. It's heady stuff, bestowing a name that will live on as long as someone is reading your books.

Rightly or wrongly, names paint an image of a character's physical or emotional characteristics in my mind. Because this imagery is so powerful for me (and possibly for others), I let it influence my character names. For example:

Scott Truman - an honest, loyal, hardworking young cop
Judge Shackleford - a tough minded judge
Hugo Petchard - a distasteful cop who relies on his daddy's money to buy influence (he also isn't huge, which bothers him greatly)

I try to pick names that don't look or sound alike, unless it doesn't matter that they do. The Cass Elliot Crime Series includes teenaged twins, Matt and Mark Grove. They're always together, always in trouble, and it doesn't really matter who is who.

In cases where it does matter, I like unique names. It helps me set the stage for 'who' a character is and what he's about, both for myself and for the reader. Names are one way to give characters an identity, and they're an easy touchstone to help the reader stay focused.
The name thing matters so much to me that I've abandoned books if I can't keep the characters straight. I'm about to shut down a story now because two characters have names so similar I get confused: Mark and Marcus. Their roles are also similar (police / security guys) and that makes it even harder to keep them straight. about you? Do names resonate with you? Have you ever stopped reading because the names were so similar you couldn't keep them straight? Is naming an important part of your writing process?

photo credit: abbey*christine via photopin cc

photo credit: elisabet ottosson via photopin cc 


  1. I really bothers me too when authors have names that are too similar to each other. I once got halfway through a novel before I figured out that a character I thought was one person turned out to be two different people. I also feel it's important for names to be easily pronouncable which can be a proplem in fantasy and science fiction where weird names abound. Anything that throws me out of a story annoys me.

    For my own writing, I feel a character's name is an important part of the character. Some names I use because I like the sound of them, others have double or hidden meanings. It can be hard to find the right name for some characters. I've spent weeks deciding on a name before. It got bad enough for one name that I found myself wandering around the house muttering different names under my breath to try them out. My 9 year old daughter noticed and asked when I was going to finally pick a name.

    1. I love that you take naming your characters so seriously. Sometimes names come easily. Other times, like when your 9 year old was prodding you along, they don't.

      I ended up changing the last name for one of my characters because I wasn't sure it really fit him. Sadly, I'm now sure the name I picked for him doesn't fit! Live and learn, I suppose.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  2. I got one of my continuing character's names from a local funeral home. Picked up another because it sounded peaceful and serene, like the opposite of what he is. Names can help a story or undermine a character completely. Always loved Spenser, Parker's detective, since his name is a tip of the hat to Philip Marlowe (and Marlowe himself has the ring of medieval chivalry). Sam Spade specializes in digging, Mike Hammer is the ultimate blunt instrument. Archie Goodwin is definitely a Good One. I like it best when the character's name implies something about him or her that is significant to the story. Of course, you can go overboard with this stuff, too. . .

    1. A funeral home? Beautiful. Can we go overboard with this stuff? Yeah, you're probably right that we can, but it's fun getting there.

      It's also funny how character names usually come pretty easily to me, but we have a rescue kitty that we can't find a name for. He's Little Dude for the moment, but if he keeps slaughtering the local bunnies at such a rapid clip, we might end up calling him Freddy. Or maybe Jason.

      Thanks for the comment.

  3. I write YA and MG, so I keep copies of my son's band performances and soccer schedules for up-to-date names for young people. (And the spellings! Don't get me started). I do try to use unique names that will stand out to a reader, especially for my main character. I name my MG MC Chase, because he as he solves the mystery he literally "chases" the truth. My YA character is Russian, but I shortened Tereska to Tess to help her assimilate better in her white-dominated community. Sometimes I change names partway through a draft. But once you find a good name, you always know!

    1. You're right, Janelle, you do know a good name when you find one! Keeping copies of band performances and soccer schedules is a great way to keep up with names for young people. I love obituaries, too, especially for help finding a name for someone who's from an older generation.

  4. I used to pick names from a phone book. But when I started working at the county historical society I found a much better source--old newspapers. Sure lots of those first names are out of fashion now. They're still perfect for my historical mysteries and westerns. I also find enough that aren't dated and can be used in my contemporary stories.

    1. I've used the phone book to mix and match first and last names, but they're getting harder and harder to find. I love the idea of using old newspapers - thanks for the tip!

  5. Excellent advice here - many thanks! I find it worthwhile to keep a large list of family names on file. I add to it when I see others that could be appropriate. I'm careful not to duplicate names of characters used already (11-book series so far) so I highlight each name used and identify in which book the character appeared. It's important to find a balance between common surnames (Smith, Jones, Robinson and suchlike) and more unusual, but credible, ones. British village names can be very useful - and credible. I seek out non-Anglosphere names by googling names of past cabinet members of other countries. It's equally useful to keep a list of first names, male and female, but they need to be appropriate to the era (no Victorian Tiffanys or Darrens!)