What’s In A Name?

One of the first critiques of an early draft of my debut novel was that the names of the characters seemed random, like they’d been pulled from a hat. The comment surprised me. You mean there’s another way?

The right name is a beautiful thing. That’s why parents spend so much time thinking about what to call their little bundle of joy. As a writer, I have a huge advantage over parents. I know how my children turn out in the end.

My only rule had been to avoid picking names starting with the same letter. Telling James’s story in After Christmas Eve did lead me to add another rule. No more names ending with the letter S. The possessive is just too ugly.

My writers group pointed out all the biblical names in Until Thanksgiving — Joshua, Adam and Caleb, Michael, Philip and James, and Mary, mother of  Thaddeus. I had no idea. About the only two that weren’t, Ed and Greg, came from guys I met when I lived in DC.

Everything about writing After Christmas Eve was more deliberate than had been the case with my debut novel.  Even the preparation was different. I wrote backstories for all the major characters, including a few identified only as “police sergeant,” “private investigator,” or “first victim” until I knew enough to try on a name.

Lifelong friends inspired some names. Linda, Josh Freeman’s best friend in Until Thanksgiving, is a nod to one of my very best friends. In After Christmas Eve, Terrence’s name and love for photography are inspired by another dear friend. I’d guess neither friend brags much about having been honored in this way.

Using a particular name for a character sometimes makes me laugh. You have to know my friend Lanny to appreciate the humor in using his name for a gay hustler. I doubt he’ll be bragging at parties, either.

George Walker’s receptionist in After Christmas Eve was inspired by a television character. She didn’t even have a name in early drafts, but she turned up too often not to have her own identity. I ended up using the same name as her fictional inspiration.

Sometimes the first name that pops into my head sticks, like Philip Potter and Beau Carter. I might try a dozen different names for some characters before I settle on one that fits. Daniel Bradbury started out as Danny — until I wrote “Lanny and Danny” in a sentence and realized the names were too similar.

Real people also have cameo roles in my stories. Mary Day never appears, but she was a prominent ballet instructor in DC around the time my story takes place. Fess Parker, Ed Ames, Ron Ely, and Robert Conrad get mentions, along with Diana Ross, Roberta Flack, and the Beatles. Frank Kameny was a real hero of the early gay rights movement who lived in DC when After Christmas Eve takes place.

Names matter. I get that now. But my warning still stands. Be nice… Or I’ll use your real name in my next novel.

10 responses to “What’s In A Name?”

  1. Absolutely! I love that!!! All my major characters are patterned after real people, and in most cases, some variation of their real name is used. At least that’s how I remember it – it has been far too long since I even looked at mine, much less *penned* any new words. Can’t wait to meet your friends in ACE!!! (Lanny and Danny – that cracked me up… Daniel is way better haha!)

  2. Live and learn, right? You’ll get to it–one of these days. I had to figure out a way to keep blogging from taking up time for “real” writing. It’s a balancing act I don’t always win.

  3. Names are really important. Names take me a while. I have sex scenes, characteristics (both physical and personality), and then I wait… I call them character A and B… until their names present themselves to me.
    When a sci-fi WIP I resorted to Scrivener’s namer because I was getting tired of A and B lol… Names are one of those things that connect us to the characters… it because short hand for everything that person is or does… no pressure or anything.
    Hugs, Z.
    PS Birthdays are also good to know to flesh out character details.

  4. I find last names to be the hardest. They can reveal backstories I sometimes don’t even intend to tell (via nationality, heritage, etc), but they still have to sound “right” with the first name. And I’m always tempted to make the last names have double meanings (Hopewell, Goodman) but then I feel like a tool… so I usually end up going generic like Walsh or Smith, because my laziness ultimately wins out.

  5. Names are always tricky…I hear this from my daughter all the time. I enjoyed this post, Michael, because I think about names of people a lot. Yes. I know. Weird.