Name That Character


by Elizabeth Shore

Who Am II’ve recently begun outlining a new contemporary erotic romance. I’ve got the story fairly well conceived, but I needed inspiration for my characters’ names so I turned to one of those “name your baby” books. While thumbing through the pages and weighing my choices, I came across an interesting tidbit. Back in 2006, a psychologist conducted a study in which six pictures of women all deemed equally attractive were shown to a population of college students with fake names attached to each picture. Three of the women were given “pretty” names, and three were given “unattractive” names. The names’ desireability, by the way, had been previously determined by an earlier student survey. You can probably guess the results. Not only did the women with the pretty names garner far more votes by the male population, but they were the clear winners among the female voters as well.

Name association is powerful. Think of the images brought to mind when you hear the female names Bertha, Edna, or Agnes versus Tiffany, Bambi, or Dawn. Quite a difference, right? Now let’s consider a female protagonist who’s sexy, smart, and beautiful beyond words. She travels the globe on behalf of her spy agency, using her intellect and feminine wiles to pry information from powerful men and get whatever she needs. What’s this savvy gal’s name? Isabella? Nicole? Lola? Maybe even Sophia or Gigi. The name of this character depends on many factors, including one’s personal history with a particular name. But it’s a safe bet that our female spy protagonist isn’t going to be called Ethel. Or Madge.

This is true for the guys as well. Our heros need heroic names. The powerful leader of a multi-billion dollar international conglomerate just isn’t going to be named Dudley. He might, however, be Jackson, Mark, or Miles. There are also regional association to consider. Jeb or Clint are names with more of a southern flair versus Malcolm or Frederick that sound more northeastern.

But what if, as a writer, you simply love the name Wilbur? It’s got some positive association for you because you once knew someone with that name, or maybe you just like how it sounds coming off the tongue. Can you create a macho, powerful character and name him Wilbur? Why not? (and don’t wimp out and call him Will for short. He’s Wilbur, damn it!) For a writer, it’s an interesting challenge. Give your character a name that doesn’t initially conjure up a specific image, whether that be sexiness, or masculinity, or power, or elegance. Call your heroine Beulah, for example. Make her a stunning beauty, a media maven, a corporate powerhouse. Whatever you want, but something that doesn’t initially seem to fit the Beulah image. I think it’s a creative opportunity for a writer to own that name and turn it into something that doesn’t, at first glance, seem like an obvious choice.

I suppose there are some names that just aren’t going to fly, despite the talents of the writer. A main character named Rambo, for example, calls to mind a specific image that may be impossible for readers to shake. Same with Rihanna. Or Madonna (but really, would you actually name a character Madonna?).

In the meantime, I continue developing my characters. In time, as I get to know them, they’ll eventually tell me their names.

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15 Comments

  • LizEverly
    May 1, 2013 at 5:53 am

    Great post! Naming characters can be very tricky. When I first started writing my mystery series, one of my main characters was “Bella.” By the time I finished it and was starting to shop it around, you-know-what was popular, so I changed it. But to this day, I sometimes have to stop and think and NOT call her Bella when I’m talking about her. LOL.

    • Elizabeth Shore
      May 1, 2013 at 9:29 am

      So true, Liz! I’ve sometimes decided on a name for a character, but then the character keeps telling me his name isn’t what I decided, it’s something else. Funny about Bella. 🙂 Yeah, that one’s kinda taken for the moment.

  • Kemberlee Shortland
    May 1, 2013 at 6:41 am

    This article echoes my opinion. Character names are very important. Probably just as important as naming your child. You have to come up with a good one or the person (fictitious or real) will be saddled with it forever.

    • Elizabeth Shore
      May 1, 2013 at 9:31 am

      I feel the same way, Kemberlee. It’s really important. I’ve spent a lot of time weighing this name or that one, putting some on the “maybe” list only to discard them all later. And you know, while we’re in the thick of writing our books, the characters kind of *are* our children. 🙂

      • Kemberlee Shortland
        May 1, 2013 at 10:18 am

        Oh, for sure, they’re your kids. That’s why it’s so hard to let an editor cut your kids’ hair 😉

  • elfahearn
    May 1, 2013 at 10:17 am

    In the sequel to my book, A Rogue in Sheep’s Clothing, I was trying to decide on the name for my beautiful villainess. Arabella? (Bella, as has been pointed out, was taken.) But then I wanted her mother’s name to be Isabella — a sure way to confuse the audience. So, I changed the mother’s name to something… I don’t remember what, AND changed the villainess’s name to Abella. When I gave my sister a sneak peak, however, she called the villainess Arabella. Maybe I should go back to that. Hummm… Elf

  • cmkempe
    May 1, 2013 at 10:37 am

    I love themed names. The first Man City I took names from the Man City team for my male characters 🙂 For the second one, I changed a character’s name midway because I realized I could make a joke (sad sad me, but it made me giggle and it was a better name). Because she’s a specialist in Pre-Raphaelite paintings, I made the main character Lizzie for Elizabeth Siddal, one of the most influential beauties among those painters.

    And Chastity Flame, of course, riffed off Modesty Blaise >_< though the most recent volume all her aliases came from Belgian beer names. Huh!

    • Kemberlee Shortland
      May 1, 2013 at 10:51 am

      What was Lizzie’s original name??

      BTW, for anyone reading this, Man City; Lizzie is available tomorrow at Tirgearr Publishing —
      http://www.tirgearrpublishing.com/authors/Kempe_CM/man-city-lizzie.htm 😀

      • cmkempe
        May 1, 2013 at 11:44 am

        LOL, thanks for the plug, boss! Lizzie’s name didn’t change. Nigel’s was something else and then I fit in that line about Making Plans with Nigel and had the song in my head. I forget what his name was before.

      • Kemberlee Shortland
        May 1, 2013 at 11:57 am

        Boss?! LOL Funny.

        Making Plans for Nigel is certainly a distinct song, and an appropriate name for your character, considering what Lizzie is up to 😉

  • madelineiva
    May 1, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    I think that a strong character can actually take over the name and change it from a negative to a positive. I have a character named Zephyr, but she is not wispy and wind like. This character name was influenced by someone I knew named Zephyr. She was such an amazon and her name became imbued with such power for me that I now think of the name as one of strength. Given that my heroine seems to be something she’s not to the hero at first I thought this name would work for her.

    I also like the way a name can give a sense of humility to someone suffering under a somewhat ridiculous name. If your hero is a big strapping hunk with all the goodies life has to offer, then he might seem one dimensional. Make his name Wilbur, and have the heroine snort upon hearing his name–and suddenly he’s a little likable. Same thing for a “perfect” heroine with an ugly name–it’s a ding in her armor, and suddenly she’s more human to us. —But that’s heading in the direction of humor. I’m all for humor–yet I understand it might not suit other folks.

    • Elizabeth Shore
      May 1, 2013 at 4:15 pm

      I agree, Madeline. The obvious choice can certainly work, but it’s interesting to think how it would add dimension to your character by calling him or her something completely unexpected and seemingly not pretty, or macho, or whatever. I read once that Valerie Burton and Eddie van Halen, when they were married, had a boy and named him Wolfgang for the very reason that they’d been told Wolfgang was a no-no because of the strong association with Mozart. And guess what, I bet there are a lot of little Wolfgangs out there now. It just takes someone to decide a name is cool and then suddenly, it is.

  • jude (@togainunochi)
    May 4, 2013 at 8:38 am

    Wilbur is not a bad name, but then I associate it with Mr. Ed. the comedy show. So for me Wilbur would be a funny side kick

  • Kemberlee Shortland
    May 4, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    I wrote a character I named Fergus Manley. He was a guy who thought he was the answer to every woman’s wet dreams, only in reality he was a douche. He thought he was a legend, but was actually quite forgettable.

    I like Wilbur, but yeah, I’d think about Mr Ed too (shows my age) o_O. I like Wilford too, but makes me think of a man of a certain era with a big mustache and a round belly in a plaid shirt, ala Wilford Brimley.

    I love names. The more unusual the better. Trying at the moment to help my sister come up with name suggestions for her soon-to-be-here bambino. Not as easy as we had though.

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