Listening to Your Characters: Name Inspiration

Naming characters, like naming children and pets, is a funny thing. Names are so important, and pack in so much information. They speak of time, class, and ethnicity. They have history. They have weight. Now, I am not known for my great naming ability. My cat Whitey is named Whitey because, well, she’s white, like a rabbit. And she was adopted the day after our cat Blackie died (who was named Blackie because, you know, she was an all-black cat) but naming my characters is something that came naturally to me.

My process for naming characters is a bit hard to describe, because I feel like my characters all told me their names and not the other way around. Most of my early character work happens in the back of my head—I get a feel for their personalities as they slowly reveal themselves to me—and then the name soon follows. I sometimes still have to do the legwork of looking for names but when I find the right one everything clicks into place.

I knew that the protagonist in my novel THE CITY BAKER’S GUIDE TO COUNTRY LIVING Olivia Rawlings had a nickname that was friendly sounding, and a formal name that some would use to keep her at a distance. The name Livvy came to me from the scrap of an old Nancy Griffith song Banks of the Pontchartrain. The Livvy in the song is someone you can count on. I knew that to be true of my character. It fit. Livvy’s last name Rawlings is my homage to one of my favorite musicians, David Rawlings, who makes music with his partner Gillian Welch. I knew Livvy and Martin would be playing music together, and I loved the idea of her sharing a name with a musical duo that I greatly admire.

Margaret, owner of The Sugar Maple Inn, shares all the qualities of my great-aunt Margaret, who I used to visit when I was a child. Margaret was a stern, elegant Irish woman who I was vaguely terrified of when I was little. Her kitchen was spotless. Her house on the Cape had steep staircases and small, drafty rooms with cut crystal dishes full of hard candy. She let us wander through the cranberry bogs and feed carrots to the horses. I never knew her husband, who had passed away before I was born, but she never struck me as lonely or in need of anyone. She was the inspiration for my character Margaret, both in name and spirit.

Martin, the musician who comes home to Guthrie to take care of his ailing father, was a little different. Martin is a laconic person, and he liked to talk to me as much as he liked to talk to anyone. I knew his name was a bit old-fashioned and serious, like him. Martin became Martin on a walk with my dog. I don’t know where it came from, only that as soon as it came to mind, it was set in stone. His family name, McCracken, is a little shout-out to my old suburban punk-rock friends of the 80’s. There was an old cemetery in the center of town, with a big, flat tomb in the middle marked with the name McCracken. I spent many hours sitting on that tomb, smoking Camels and trying to look tough. “I’ll meet you at McCracken” was a phrase I heard almost everyday of high school. It still fills me with a warm feeling to remember those days filled with nothing to do but spend time with my friends. In my novel, the McCracken family is large and warm and there is always someone to hang out with.

If you are a writer, or you have an occasion to name someone, I hope the names come quickly to you, but here are some resources in case you need a little help finding just the right one.

  • The Social Security Administration keeps a wonderful record of baby names by year.
  • Graveyards are a fun place to find names both old and not so old.
  • The Statue of Liberty—Ellis Island Foundation has a wonderful website where you can search ship rosters.
  • Telephone books—I highly recommend keeping a hardcopy of the White pages from the area your book is set. It is a wonderful way to find what names are common in an area. Local libraries still keep a copy.
  • There are endless amounts of baby naming sites online that give you the etymology and history of first names. I like Behind the Name.
  • And there are some naming books especially for writers, like Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Character Naming Sourcebook, which divides names by heritage.
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Louise Miller

Louise Miller is the author of THE CITY BAKER'S GUIDE TO COUNTRY LIVING (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking/August 9, 2016), the story of a commitment-phobic pastry chef who discovers the meaning of belonging while competing in the cut-throat world of Vermont county fair baking contests. Find out more at louisemillerauthor.tumblr.com.

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This article has 4 Comments

  1. Phone books are good. The two characters I’ve been writing about for the longest time (46 years and counting 🙂 ) got their last names from a phone book. (DiGregorio and Stiglianese).

    I find that mostly my characters tell me their names, and usually I don’t have a lot of say in the matter. The majority of my characters live under names they made up themselves — for various different reasons — so the names have to be names that the characters would have picked for themselves.

    For the others, they have to be names that their parents would have selected. For example, very religious parents might have been likely to pick biblical names.

    That’s for regular characters. One-time characters can be more difficult (and you need bunches of one-time characters in mystery stories — you know, for suspects). I have different systems for that. For one story, I took character names from the TV show Dark Shadows, for example.

      1. I was tempted, but no. Too distracting. I also avoided Quentin and Angelique.

        By the way, you may already know all about this, but Big Finish puts out an excellent series of Dark Shadows audio dramas featuring a lot of the original actors from the TV show,. Some of the stories are really good.

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