What’s in a name? A lot, actually

Several months ago there was a story on the journalism news circuit about a young reporter for a Connecticut newspaper who was fired for making up names.

He got caught when his editor started looking the names up of the people he quoted. They were so bizarre that the editor wanted to make sure they were spelled right. But he couldn’t find any of the people.

At the same time, I was reading a mystery novel and something nagged me, bugged me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Halfway through the book, I figured it out. The names were all so bland that it made the story ring untrue to me. And it became a thing for the rest of the book. Every time a character was introduced I’d get more bugged as another bland, generic name was added to the story. So much for that writer’s book making any other kind of impression on me.

Picking out names for a story (and for this exercise we’ll consider that young unethical reporter the fiction writer he was rather than a legitimate journalist) is underrated. It’s also hard.

Go too crazy, like Jimmy Notajournalist, and the story is immediately suspect. Go too bland and — hey! — you have the same issue.

As a writer, you want the reader to cross over into your world. To forget it’s a book and believe it’s real. Anything that reminds readers it’s a book — like names that don’t quite make it — keeps that wall up.

I read a pretty good blog post about a week ago that gave tips on making sure character names worked in a book, including not giving people similar names and checking out the phone book to find good names.

I’ll add a tip that works for me — I like to go to local cemeteries and find names that are common ones for the community. Every community has names that just fit. Certain families settle and spread out in a community and those names become common, for businesses, for civic leaders. Then there is the ethnic background of the community, whether it’s a vivid mix of ethnicities or whether it’s old Yankee with a little something else thrown in.

When I worked for a newspaper in Manchester, N.H, a city with a strong French Canadian influence, there was a guy in the composing room named Roland Gagnon. Every time a Roland Gagnon was in the obituaries, someone would clip it out and put it up on the wall. You’d be amazed how many Roland Gagnons there were on that wall. In Manchester, that was a common name. But if your book takes place somewhere in Nebraska, it may be a name you want to avoid. Unless the character is from Manchester, of course.

Good writers know how important it is to make setting authentic. Part of knowing that setting is to know what kind of names people who live there have. If you’re writing about somewhere you’ve lived all your life, you should have an ear for what kinds of names your community has. If you don’t, you haven’t been paying attention. And I’d wonder about how those powers of observation, or lack of such, are affecting the rest of your writing.

If you are writing about a place you don’t live, the internet is a great tool. Google the local newspapers and read the local stories and see what kind of names pop up. Check out the obituaries — they’re not exclusive to newspapers anymore. Most newspapers use a service, Legacy, and you can find most of the obituaries for a a community there.

The bottom line? Know your setting well enough to know what kind of names live there. Then take it farther. Don’t shrug off the names of your characters, both major ones and minor, as an afterthought. It matters. Don’t go crazy with the names and don’t go bland. Go authentic.

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About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. She hosts the podcast Notes from a Cranky Editor all by herself, as well Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
This entry was posted in Craft, Maureen Milliken, Writers, Writing, Writing lessons, Writing resources. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to What’s in a name? A lot, actually

  1. I love this post because I am AWFUL at coming up with names for my characters. I like the character names to go along with their personalities. If the character personality is bland and boring I like to give them a name to match. I like every part of the character including the dialogue, the descriptions and their names to match.

  2. Great post, Maureen. One time I couldn’t come up with a name as I was writing, so I just called the character Officer Blank, figuring I’d think of something later. Later, I realized I’d almost been right the first time. In this novel set in central Maine he became Officer Le Blanc.

    Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett (and other assorted names)

  3. Pingback: Pen, Ink, and Crimes

  4. Rebecca Milliken says:

    Names are important in a story. I don’t like it when two characters have names that start with the same letter,, especially at the beginning of a book or if they are not major characters. The reader (me) gets confused. J.K. Rowling is a great namer, especially in the Harry Potter books, but since those were fantasy stories, she could get away with unusual names.

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