Monday, March 29, 2010

What’s in a Name?

I have been thinking about names a great deal over the past few years.
As a writer the subject of names comes up repeatedly.

How do you pick the name for your main character (or characters)? Or for that matter how does your villain (assuming you have one) come to have a name that is just right?

How on Earth do you name a novel?

Perhaps names are something that are easy for some people. Perhaps they are something that seem to leap out of nowhere.

Not for me.

Names are something I have struggled with. A lot.

My soon to be published book Veiled in Shadows is a perfect example. I didn’t finally pin down a name for the book until I began submitting it.
I was at a total loss.
Deb suggested a few names which didn’t grab me, I couldn’t hit on anything.

Then I read the manuscript again and the name finally came to me.
My book features a number of main characters, on both sides of the conflict in WWII.
Naturally, most of the characters believe that their side in the war is “right”. But one of the main characters is, so to speak, “caught between the lines”.

At one of the turning points in the book she describes how she sees the choices she has to make: ‘I don't know anymore. I have lived so many lies. Nothing seems black or white any longer. I live in a world veiled in shadows.’

I had my title.

Some of my characters were no easier. For a start many of them are from non English speaking backgrounds. Picking non-English names is a minefield. I wanted their names to be authentic, but they couldn’t be so unusual that readers found it hard to identify with them.

Some names were easy. Danny Parnell for example had his name chosen by me pulling Christian and surnames out of a hat.

Another, Peter, had a name as soon as I thought of him.

Yet others like, Katharina and Ebi my most central characters (and who feature in my back cover blurb) had provisional names for most of the time I was writing the book.
Ebi was “Erich” and Katharina was “Katrina”.

I knew them intimately, but it was almost as if they hadn’t yet trusted me with their names.

Oddly, I don’t remember how I eventually came up with Ebi’s name (a contraction of the name Ebert).

Katharina came to me from, of all things, a cemetery. I wasn’t happy with “Katrina”, but had just as much success picking a name for her as I had with the book. Desperate, I went to one of the best places for authentic names I could think of. A cemetery.

In the Lutheran section of a large cemetery I had a huge database of names of people born in Germany from about 1870 until 1950.

Being somewhat of a nerd and loving cemeteries I compiled a list of men’s and women’s names of people born in Germany and did some very basic statistical analysis. In this particular cemetery the most popular German male name was Heinrich and the female name – Katharina.

Katharina, a German form of Katherine was very like my provisional name, but unlike “Katrina” it seemed right.

It felt like Katharina finally trusted me enough to share her name.

While on the subject of names, at a loose end on Sunday afternoon Deb and I went on one of our usual lightning trips

This time we drove about 130 km (around 80 miles) to the North West. We ended up in Bendigo, in what was Victoria’s largest goldfield.

Like my characters and my book, Bendigo seemed ambivalent about its name for its first forty years of existence. According to Wikipedia “Although the goldfield was always known as Bendigo, the first official name was Castleton, which was quickly replaced by Sandhurst, after the British military establishment Sandhurst. The city was not officially called Bendigo until 1891”

Like Melbourne, Bendigo shows signs of the immense wealth that flowed into the town from the gold diggings.

In the main street the original Post Officeand former Crown Lands Office.A pub, The Hotel Shamrock. Something tells me there must have been an awful lot of money in beer in the gold rush days.

In the gardens on Pall Mall Queen Victoria averts her eyes, from the nudity on the Alexandra Fountain, which stands slap bang in the middle of Charing Cross (what was that about names?)
I think this fountain is a classic case of the fact that money does not necessarily mean good taste!
Within a few hundred metres of the main street is a reminder of what gave the town its wealth.
The Central Deborah Gold Mine.
A metric tonne of gold was dug from this mine, while it was operational from 1939 until 1954. The mine was bought by the town council and preserved for posterity in 1970.


SonshineMusic i.e. Rebecca T. said...

Names can be SO difficult! I can never come up with good titles for my novels or stories. yech. They just don't like me. Character names I don't usually have a problem with. They usually come to me with the character and sometimes I am dying to change the name, but they just WILL not be anything else.

Cynthia Reese said...

Names ARE hard, truly bug-a-boos. For American names, I just check the Social Security Administration's list of names for the year my character was supposedly born, and pick a name from there.

But foreign names? Sheesh. I'd never thought about a cemetery. Great idea!

Elaine AM Smith said...

Names are crucial - I'm with you there.
Census rolls and the cemetries - I Google search Most Popular Names with a year and country.
Speaking of names - do you know Brotherhood CC in Frankstone? My sister manages there. Melbourne is large but the world is small ;)

heidenkind said...

I always joke that I should never have children because I'd give them terrible names. I can't imagine trying to come up with a name for a novel!

Hazel said...

You name a novel by something people won't expect.

Kathleen Jones said...

Hi Al, there's a very good (if a bit literary) article on characters here,,2246855,00.html#article_continue
and there are some good character naming resource sites at
There are also some novel title sites, but I hate them all. Titles are my big bug-bear!

Elspeth Antonelli said...

I get my names from lists of baby names from the year the character is born. I usually get the right one - but occasionally I'm wrong. I know I'm wrong when I can't write the character. As for titles - I go to Shakespeare. SPY MY SHADOW is from a line in Richard III - a figure who is very important to one of my characters. Luckily, the phrase has a great many other meanings as well.

Thanks for the pictures - that type of architecture is very familiar. I suspect all the countries that used to be coloured pink on the maps have rather similar pieces.

Ann said...

Names are hard. Sometimes they just come and then others the right name is as elusive as a butterfly. Very good idea the cemetery. I must wander the cemeteries when I am home this summer. Loved the photos.

rtfgvb7818 said...

IS VERY GOOD..............................

Alyssa Goodnight said...

I'm like you--I struggle with names. It's funny though, once you hit on the right one, it just clicks.

Ben Hutchins said...

I spend hours trolling through various name web sites. For my fantasy book, I tried to choose names that that have meaning or significance. For example, my main character, Howard Adelmar, his name means to be noble and famous. And although he goes by Howie, his grandpa can be heard frequently saying, "We live noble, and we die famous--that's what it means to be an Adelmar."

By the way - congrats on getting your first novel published. I hope my turn is not too far away.

Al said...

Hi Rebecca,
I agree names don’t like me either! I don’t usually have a problem with minor characters, but major ones? Sheesh! Isn’t it funny how characters names get stuck to them. I had one in particular whose name was I happy with. Then the plot called for her to get married and the combination of names was just dismal. But both she and her husband steadfastly refused to be known by any other name!
Nice to find out your name too!

Hi Cynthia,
Electoral roles and similar resources can useful too. The thing with a cemetery is that a community needs to be identifiable. Lutherans in Oz a hundred years ago were almost all born in Germany.

Hi Elaine,
Yes names are either right or …
I do know of the Brotherhood of Saint Lawrence in Frankston.
In fact my Grandparents used to live in a BSL retirement village just near there.
The world is indeed ridiculously small!

Hi Tasha,
I could be accused of giving my children “terrible names”. One of mine didn’t like hers because it was “different”.
Inventing novel names is associated with premature greyness!

Hi Hazel,
Good point. You can pick a name that would stand out that way.

Hi Kathleen,
Thanks for the links.
Naming sites never seem to help at all.
I sympathise, titles are terrifyingly difficult.

Hi Elspeth,
Baby name lists have been of some assistance.
Isn’t it interesting how “right” things have to be before a character will flow.
Literature has always been a popular source for titles, you’re in great company there.
You are most welcome for the piccies. Ah, the good old Empire. We all seemed to fall over ourselves to see who could be more British than the British.

Hi Ann,
Names are as hard as…
I love cemeteries, at least the old headstone type. Modern Lawn cemeteries leave a lot to be desired.
I’m pleased you enjoyed the piccies.

Hi rtfg…
Thank you.

Hi Alyssa,
Finding a name is a pain!
But yes, the right one does simply click into place.31 March, 2010

Hi Ben,
Hours is right! For some characters I find it can take months to get the right name!
Best of luck with your own literary endeavours!

Kyna said...

Hi Al :) I'm very glad you stopped by my blog and left a comment, or I probably wouldn't have found yours. These days I'm mostly on garden blogs...

Very interesting subject. I've always been the opposite way. I like to fancy myself a writer, with a novel hiding inside of me somewhere waiting to jump out. Alas, it never seems to want to come out of the closet :(

I have a lot of character names inside my brain...whole characters really. They just haven't given me more than a few pieces of story at a time ;)

Nice to meet you, I'll be back :)

Al said...

Hi Kyna,
Pleased to meet you as well!

My problem is I have too many novels hiding inside and not enough time to write. Hopefully you'll get the door to the novel closet open someday.

Then all those characters in your brain can find another home.

Thanks for popping by.

Yvonne said...

I find it easy to name characters. They just pop out and only rarely do I end up changing them. Though I like what you said..."I knew them intimately, but it was almost as if they hadn’t yet trusted me with their names." That's exactly the way it feels at first. I do like the idea of stalking cemeteries for names.

Now, titles are a different matter. I've changed the one on the novel I'm currently querying five times! Five, I say.

Congratulations on your near publishing date! Oh, and thanks for joining my blog. It's always exciting to see a new face.

Al said...

Hi Yvonne,
Many characters pop out ready made with names.
But for me there are some...
It is amazing how much characters feel independent of me as an author. I suppose a psychologist would say it says a lot about how people think, either that or I am barking...

Five? Wow.
Well it took me so long to settle on Veiled in Shadows I may have well had four names before hand.

Thank you! I am only to happy to find new blogs to lurk around :)