November 10, 2014

The Name Game

by Kiersten Hallie Krum

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Well, yeah, but only if you like roses. And you’d still have to call it something. Say, Herbert.

As you may have already guessed, I suck at the Name Game.

Most young girls play the game of “when I have a daughter, I’ll name her…” and come up with a name associated to what is foremost in their minds at the moment. For example, in this post-Frozen apocalypse in which we live, the most likely choice would be some variation of Elsa Anna Hanson. Me, I watched Battlestar Galactica and Wonder Woman and Buck Rogers and wanted to name my kid Athena Cassiopeia and not for the goddess or the constellation.

names are sweet

Really, it’s a blessing to the planet that I never procreated.

Clearly, I’ve been drawn to unusual names for a long time, though at least I’ve never considered fruit as a naming option. I’d probably wind up with some poor heroine called Pomegranate Kiwi. Actually…

Every time I start a new writing project, I get totally tripped up on the name game. Cherry Adair swears by making astrological charts for each character by which she not only comes with a name but maps out the characteristics and emotional conflicts too. But astrology has never connected with me or perhaps I’ve never connected to astrology. I suppose there’s probably something in my star chart about that.

I’ve tried the name books and web sites but it feels so clinical. Often I stick in a place holder name, like word association gone awry, and wait for the Writing Gods to bestow their benevolence on me. If you’re wondering how that works out, let’s just say the Writing Gods are pernicious and cruel and leave it at that. Once, in frustration, I cribbed a name from the author of an Irish history research book I was in the midst of reading for a paper. As it turned out, that’s still my favorite character name.


Names are important in fiction and often used as short-hand character description, most famously by Charles Dickens with his Cratchit and Scrooge, Mrs. Sparsit and Mr. McChoakumchild. Just last month during a read and review event at the New Jersey Romance Writers conference, an agent requested a submission but only if the author was willing to change a particularly off-putting name in the manuscript. Because names matter. They are our gateway, our first idea of who this person is going to be. It’s why there are precious few romance hero dukes named Horace and a proliferation of bad boy bikers heroes named some variation of Crash.

Free tip ladies: Never ride with a biker named Crash.

straightforward names

I tend to gravitate to the same names over and over again; I have no idea why, but there is always a man named Michael in every world I create. There’s so much brand association now with names too, it can be difficult to disassociate certain ones from their real-life embodiment. Likewise, if I choose a name of someone I know because I love the name, I worry that my character will resemble that person too.

The truth of it is, names have power. Whether we’re naming a person or character or merely calling someone a dumbass, there’s power in the word. Names are identity, they make people acknowledge who you are in all your unique wonder and madness.

In fantasy stories, knowing a person’s true name gives you power over them, such as with Rumpelstiltskin. “The name is the thing, and the true name is the true thing. To speak the name is to control the thing,” writes Ursula K. Le Guin. In folklore, an unnamed child is susceptible to be snatched by fairies. In romance novels, pivotal moments are made by the way a character says his/her lover’s name. Several of us here at Lady Smut use pen names, as do many writers, to protect our identities from everything from Internet trolls and criminals to the gossiping church ladies to judgment in our day jobs. I choose not to use a pen name because I have enough difficulty with the personalities in my head as it is. Naming them will only give them encouragement.

he calls me beautiful

Sometimes, the name of character evolves out of the writing of his/her story. As I’m writing this post, a writer just posted on The Twitter how moments earlier she  renamed a character in book three and now has to go all the way back to book one and correct it. We do this because when we know it’s right, we know it’s right. The right name can reveal all…if only we could find it.

But in the meantime, as far as my books are concerned, expect to meet a lot of Michaels.

How do you name your characters? What are some names you can only associate with a specific person, fictional or otherwise.

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  • Post authorMadeline Iva

    …And then, there are the writers who have no names for their characters. 9 out of 10 things I write designate the speaker as HIM for most of the process. Oy.

    Reply to Madeline Iva
  • Post authorKel

    I’ve always like interesting names, but I think the names authors choose tell us a lot about what they want us to think about the character; their background, their ethnicity, their social structure…

    And actually, the biker(s) named Crash is generally so called because he or she had a truly stupendous one as a Dumb_Kid and walked away basically uninjured… and now knows better. I only know one biker with such a nickname, and I’d trust him to take my as yet unborn children on their very first pillion ride.

    It’s like the 7 foot tall guy named Tiny. And why I end up getting “and that, ladies, is a petite and dainty flower of delicate femininity, Booyah”… while being cheered for an especially hooligan move. (Although I do rather dance with my motorcycle, so perhaps I’m not a good example – this is not just my impression.)

    Motorcyclists have a very low sense of humor. It takes a certain kind of person to hang onto an engine balanced on a couple of wheels and play in traffic that’s trying to kill you, after all. (And that’s the attitude – every car on the road is either actively trying to kill you because they hate you, or thinks you’re invisible, and is trying to kill you accidentally… or is a biker mad because they’re stuck in a cage today, and might kill you out of road rage. 😉 You think I’m joking.)

    • Post authorKemberlee

      Actually, the bikers I’ve known (my late cousin was one I spent a lot of time with) have all had great senses of humor. A little warped, but it’s there. 😉

      Reply to Kemberlee
  • Post authorKemberlee

    I love names. The more unusual, the better. It may come from the fact that my mother chose to name me for my father and I take some amusement in getting people to guess how I was named for a man 😉

    Seriously though, I love odd names, old fashioned names, and cultural names.

    When I was writing an erotic romance a couple years ago, I needed a name that suited the hero. Medieval Welsh badass whose father the king was even terrified of him. His reputation for putting men in the ground preceded him. Then I came across the Welsh name of Bedwyr, pronounced bed-oo-eer. The translation . . . The Grave Knower! Bedwyr is the Welsh version of the Anglicized Bedivere from King Arthur’s time. He was the only Round Table knight who knew where Arthur was buried . . . hence grave-knower. But it worked well for my story.

    I mostly write Irish set romances, and the problem I find is that other writers who set books in Ireland or write about Irish characters all use the same names…Liam, Mick, Sully, etc. It’s not always easy finding names English speakers can pronounces, let alone spell . . . like Eoin is Owen, not Ian.

    I’m not apposed to traditional names though. My last Irish hero was called John. His full name was John Desmond but went by JD undercover. I actually think John is kind of sexy in its simplicity.

    My current hero is called Adrian. Oddly, it fits him. The heroine to that story is Sive . . . pronounced like Five. Very old Irish name.

    I can talk names for days 😉

    Reply to Kemberlee
  • Post authorbarbaramikula

    Well, I’ve named heroes after a couple of men I dated in the dim and misty past (LOL) and one bad guy after my ex-husband (ROFLMHO – or whatever that is!) OMG was that ever satisfying! – Names are fun and they often give my characters their face for me. It’s a starting place for the story – Skye Michaels

    Reply to barbaramikula

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