What’s in a Name?

Do you put as much effort into naming your characters as you do titling your novel?

My experience at a recent writers conference, plus a novel I read en route, prompts me to ponder what’s in a character’s name.

Boys Named Sue
As expected, the writers whose work I reviewed ran the gamut from veterans to first-timers. But the name of one novel’s protagonist cast a cloud over the entire work.

The name was Shamrock. A winsome Irish lass with a lilting brogue and long auburn locks floating over the heather, right?

Wrong. Shamrock was a guy. In New York City. With conventionally named parents who had given their other child a normal name. What was going on?

I should have seen it coming. The writer had targeted twenty-something readers and used an edgy style. That’s one euphemism for first-person, present-tense with random punctuation. But a guy named Shamrock? Shades of that old Johnny Cash song.

Edwina’s Insights
Talking to another novelist reassured me some writers remain dedicated to getting character names right. She mentioned how her parents came to name her Edwina. I’d never have expected her to carry that name. But as I got to know her, the name fit perfectly.

She mentioned she never gave two major characters names that began with the same initial. Why risk confusing the reader? We talked about how names reflect time and culture. And she pointed to a great source for names for people of a given place and generation: high school yearbooks.

Shane Quintana
Flying back from the conference, I enjoyed rereading John Dunning’s 1995 New York Times “notable book of the year,” The Bookman’s Wake, a mystery that explores the dark side of book collecting.

The woman who holds the key to the book’s maguffin was born in 1969. Her family name is Rigby. Her parents named her Eleanor.

Through much of the novel, cop-turned-rare-book-dealer Cliff Janeway tries to evade a determined Seattle police officer identified only as Quintana. The name suggests a man at odds with expectations. A scene near the end—when Janeway finally meets Quintana—reinforces that impression.

I asked if he had a first name.
“Shane,” he said, daring me not to like it.
But I couldn’t play it straight. “Shane Quintana?”
. . . “I was named after Alan Ladd. Kids today don’t even know who . . . Alan Ladd was.”

Dunning needed these characters to resolve their differences, and he needed to show another side of the Seattle cop. Revealing an unexpected first name and the story behind it helped accomplish those goals.

What’s in a character name? Potentially a lot.

Andy Scheer, editor-in-chief for the Christian Writers Guild, also serves as a freelance book editor and an agent with Hartline Literary. A frequent speaker at writers conferences, he served for twelve years as managing editor for Moody magazine.

Image credit: neyro2008 / 123RF Stock Photo


  1. Vani Parker says

    I am very careful in selecting a name. I choose names that not only sound nice, but ones that also mean something special. I tend towards bible names though I’m very careful in my selection, an example would be: Mary which means bitter. When jotting down an idea, I may or may not give my protagonist a name because I often wind up changing it; one that is more in keeping with where the story is headed. I’ve come a long way from when I started writing as a child of twelve, all my female characters were either Dianna or Katherine. As I’ve started to like my own name I’ve come to appreciate other names that I wouldn’t have even considered ten or twenty years ago.

  2. says

    Thanks for the reminder. I agree; names are critical in supporting the story. To find appropriate names I’ve Googled name sites for most popular names during a span of years. So in a story with three generations, the characters are delineated somewhat by name. I’ve also Googled ethnic surnames for the right fit. How a character finds its name can be amusing. I don’t even like the name of my recent protagonist, but it was her name, and that was that. The same was true of her love interest, but I couldn’t change how and why he got named: it fit the time period. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Well, true, but at this point, if you call a rose a marigold, it just doesn’t invoke the same scent memory.

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