Wednesday, June 05, 2013

NAME CALLING by Cynthia Ruchti

The phone conversation with my editor went something like this.

Me: Teensy problem. Did you notice that my main character in All My Belongings (releasing in 2015) has a name similar to one of my main characters in When the Morning Glory Blooms (April 2013 release)?

Editor: Yes. About that…

Me: Probably not the smartest idea.

Editor: (crickets)

Me: But it’s really, really important that the All My Belongings character have that first name.

Editor: I can see why.

Me: So, can I keep her?

Editor: You sound like you’re clutching a stray puppy when you ask that.

Me: Can I?

Editor: Can you at least spell it differently?

Me: Done. Thanks. (click)

Do readers know how much time novelists spend deciding on names for our characters?

We consider all the traditional rationale:
  • Does the name fit the era in which the character lived/lives?
  • Does it fit the socio-economic dynamic of the character and his or her family?
  • Does it fit the character’s personality? Sometimes there’s a reason for the district judge or the serial killer to be named Buffy or Pinky. Most often, that’s a bad call. 
  • Is it easy and intuitive for a reader to pronounce? I’ve embarrassed myself more than once mispronouncing Lucado and Omartian.
  • Does it fit the character’s physical appearance? Chase the hunky EMT fits a lot better than Chase the rail-thin CPA. No offense to CPAs.
  • Is it clearly distinguishable from other character names in the book or confusingly similar?
  • Is it too cute/groan-producing? Ima Bedwedder? Sergeant Topper Copper?
  • If character one marries character two, will the new last name work with the first name?
  • Is it a name with a less-than-desirable connotation?
  • What’s the ethnic background of the name? Does that fit my character?
  • What’s the biblical or traditional meaning of that name? Is that in keeping with the character I've created?
  • Does the name have another layer of meaning beyond what the reader sees on the surface? I gave my character Becky from When the Morning Glory Blooms the simple last name Trundle. Only after I’d landed on that name did I see the correlation between the way she kept those she loved “trundled” to her heart as if they lay on a bed that slid out from underneath hers.

I’ve chosen names from cereal boxes and newspaper headlines, from phone books and family albums, from hospital website photos of newborns and Baby Name books, from the obituaries… How does it sound to the ear? Does the name soothe or grate? Which fits better with the character I’m writing? Is it a strong-sounding name? A regal name? A girl-next-door name?

Is the name overused in contemporary fiction or distinct? How does the rhythm of the first and last name flow? Will they make a reader’s mind tongue-tied?

Another list of considerations keeps a writer searching for the perfect name. 
  • My husband knew someone by that name once. He’ll never let me get away with memorializing that teacher in print.
  •  Ooh! Almost missed that. I named the crabby mother-in-law Lorraine. Pretty sure Aunt Lorraine won’t appreciate the inference.
  • Did I know that name is Yiddish for ____________? No! Oops. Close one.
  • Someone by that name is in the headlines a lot lately…and not in a positive light. Cross off another possibility.

New parents sometimes spend the entire nine months before delivery contemplating the perfect name for their baby. Writers don’t have that much time. And we have to decide on perfect names for a whole cast of characters, like having to name two sets of octuplets! Wait! They need middle names, too?

So much to consider when bestowing a name on a character. Scout. Madeline. Forrest Gump. Anne with an E.

A project in proposal form right now has a character who insists her name is Boozy Unfortunate. I hope my editor lets me keep her.

Questions for you: Have you made or almost made a faux pas when naming a character? Looking back on books you’ve read or written, what favorite character name comes to mind?

Cynthia Ruchti is an author and speaker who tells stories of Hope-that-glows-in-the-dark through her novels, novellas, nonfiction, and through speaking engagements for women’s groups and writers’ events. Her latest novel—When the Morning Glory Blooms—and its characters fit the names given to them. You can learn more about that book or the others Cynthia has written through her website or by connecting through or


jubileewriter said...

We just had this conversation last night in the critique session you lead at WTP conference. I've read novels where characters have names that sound similar or have the same first letter. In my novel my hero is Jake and originally the villain was Drake and ranch hand was Duke. To break up the confusion I renamed the villain Bart. I think the characters were happier too.
Cindy Huff

Elaine Marie Cooper said...

Great post, Cynthia. I enjoy assigning some characters with an ironic name. In one of my historicals I have an overpowering, loud, alcohol-imbibing great aunt named "Prudence." In another novel, a young woman with a penchant for flirting with any man close enough to admire is named "Modesty." I enjoy inserting a touch of humor, especially in a predominantly serious book.

Cynthia Ruchti said...

Great thought, Elaine! Cleverly done!

Nicole said...

It's funny how we writers step into the moment of creation and fail to realize anything else other than our existence in the characters' skins. I named two of my characters with my parents' first names and didn't realize it until well after the story was done, etc. These two characters were the loves of each other's lives.

Character names come to me on the breeze. An introduction. We hear a name in our hearts and match it with another. From a memory, someone calling to a child in a grocery store . . .

But as to readers, I don't think they care about where those names originate - they just want them to fit. ;)

Lori Ann Freeland said...

Awesome thoughts on naming. The thing that drives me crazy is when two characters in the same book sound too much alike. I read a book where the main character was Emma and her best friend was Emily. Way confusing...

Michael Ehret said...


Love this line in your post: Editor: You sound like you’re clutching a stray puppy when you ask that.

Was this a conversation WE had? Because I can so hear myself saying that. LOL.

Nice post ... character names are vital. Sometimes more than others, but always.

Megan DiMaria said...

Great post, Cynthia. I stress over character names. They've got to be just so. Thanks for the discussion.

Terrie Todd said...

In a farcical stage script, I once named a character "Hardly Worthit." He was. And, apparently, so was the script. The play was never produced.

Ane Mulligan said...

I loved this post, Cynthia! I go through so much choosing the names for my characters. Not only all the things you mentioned, but then since most of my stories have large casts, I have to do alphabetical lists so I don't get too many starting with the same letter, and that's for both first and last!

And people think parents stress over giving their child the right name. HA!