Creating Characters: Finding the Right Names

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How many times in your life have you chosen someone’s name? If you are a parent, you have picked names for your children. If you don’t have kids, you may have named a pet. Or your dolls. Or your stuffed animals. Or that imaginary friend you had when you were four. Perhaps you’ve even picked your own name, as the former Bruce Jenner did when she became known to the world as Caitlyn.

For fiction writers, choosing names is something we do all the time. First names, last names, middle names, maiden names, nicknames, names for animal characters (a la Curious George or Clifford the Big Red Dog), names for places, names for space aliens, names for magical or mythical creatures. These names have to sound “right.” Think of the Bennet sisters of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice— Elizabeth, Jane, Mary, Catherine (Kitty) and Lydia. A sixth sister named Brunhilda or Siobhan would have sounded out of place.

In real life, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar had over twenty years to pick nineteen J-names for all their kids. If I were writing a story about an American family with nineteen kids whose names start with the same initial, I’d have to get the job done in a lot less time.

Let’s try it. Nineteen kids, same initial. I have to pick the right letter, one that offers many options. Hmmm, let’s go with R, shall we? To make our job harder, we’ll say that these kids were all born between 1950 and 1975, which means names like Rylee, Rumer, and Rihanna are probably out. If we do use them, we would have to explain why the parents would choose such unusual (for that time period) names. We will further limit the naming pool by deciding that our fictional parents do not wish to stand out as members of any particular ethnic group; they want to blend into their all-American surroundings. (With nineteen kids? True, most of these kids would have been born during the baby boom, but still…)

So here we go…Rebecca, Robert, Richard, Renee, Ruth, Ronald, Raymond and Raylene (twins!), Roger, Randall, Robyn, Rosemary, Regina, Rodney, Roy, Rhonda, Rachel, Ryan, and Rudolph. I cheated on that final name– I was listening to Christmas music on the radio and “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” started playing while I was finishing my list.

Now we need names for Mom and Dad. Since they started having kids in the 1950s– and since they ended up with so many– this means Mom, at least, would have been born around 1930. Let’s call her Shirley. Dad can be plain old Tom. If I had needed help finding names that were common at the time these characters were born, there are plenty of lists of baby names on the Internet. All you have to do is search for Most Popular Baby Names 1930, or whichever year you are looking for.

“Hey, Shirley! Hey, Tom! Why did you give all those kids R names? Does that initial mean something to you?”

Wait a second… I hear Shirley talking.

“It was Tom’s idea. He’s a little older than me, so he remembers the Depression real well. His daddy always kept a picture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt over their fireplace. Their family would’ve lost everything if it hadn’t been for Roosevelt. So when me and Tom started having our kids, we gave them all R names. But we didn’t want to name any of ’em Roosevelt. That’s a little too fancy for us.”

Now Tom chimes in: “Well, we did think of it towards the end. We almost ran out of R names. Then Rudolph was born on Christmas, and the other kids wanted to name him after the reindeer. I figured, why not?”

Knowing where the R names came from changes the children’s birth order. Rosemary sounds a lot more like Roosevelt than Rebecca, so we’ll switch them. Rosemary (who is called Rosey) is the first child and Rebecca can be sandwiched between Robyn and Regina.

Wait, we still need to give this family a last name. Annie Lennox is singing “Winter Wonderland” on the radio, so we will call them the Lennox family. As you can see, I often pull names out of the immediate environment, especially for minor characters or characters like the Lennox family. I don’t plan to use them for an actual story. They’re just a writing exercise.

Other times, I need to put more thought into my characters’ names. When I was writing my soon-to-be-published, set-in-the-USSR, figure skating novel Red Flags, I spent a lot of time researching Russian names. For my main character, I didn’t want to pick anything too closely associated with any particular real-life skater, so I chose Larissa. Like the USA, Russia is a diverse nation, as was the larger Soviet Union. Thus, I threw some other Eastern European names into the mix.

Larissa’s world expands as she begins to compete internationally. This means I had to name major and minor characters from a number of different countries– the USA, Canada (one major character is French Canadian), Germany (both East and West, although that didn’t make a difference in terms of names), Japan, Switzerland, Sweden. Again, I had to avoid any name that came too close to that of a real-life skater. My fictional East German champion could not be named Katarina (as in Witt), or Anett (as in Poetzsch).

American names that were off-limits included Nancy, Tonya, Dorothy, Rosalynn, Debi, Michelle, Tara, Peggy, Kristi, Tai, Randy, Brian, and Scott. Fortunately, you can get away with naming an American character just about anything as long as you come up with a convincing backstory. My three main American skaters ended up being named Cassandra, Reece, and Ellen. Ellen’s last name is Brown, the same as the 2015 U.S. men’s figure skating champ Jason Brown. I’ve been working on this book for a loooong time; I started it before Jason Brown was famous. Brown is such a common surname, I probably won’t change it. Some of the Russian characters also have common surnames such as Ivanov and Smirnov. I don’t plan to change those, either.

As for Shirley and Tom Lennox, they just told me their dog’s name.

Rover.

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