A Reader’s POV – It’s All In The Name

Reviewer Cathy Speight

I often wonder when I am reading a book what you, the authors, consider might be going through my mind as I am reading your masterpieces. I’m guessing that it’s – I hope the reader is captivated, enthralled, riveted, will review my work and give it 5 stars and help me on the way to Rowling success and wealth. Most of the time I am and I do. However, I’m also one of those people who doesn’t always keep her eyes on the road ahead, and I often find myself equally interested in the side roads off the main highway. I’m the type of person who catches the continuity girl out on TV shows – I’ll spot that the microwave’s moved, that the window was shut when it was open in the scene just before, or that a mirror has changed to a painting. I would have made a good continuity girl.  It’s detail, I like detail.

So, I often wonder why you choose a particular country or state or town for your book’s setting; I often wonder how you choose the clothes your characters are wearing; how and why you decide what they will look like; how you decide how their homes are furnished; how you decide on their ages, their families, their choice of cars. I did say I go down the side roads.

One of those ‘side road’ thoughts I often have is: how do you choose the names for your characters? Do you opt for names you particularly like, or would have liked to have been called, or will call your six children when you have them? Do you call your characters after friends and family that resemble those characters? Or do you look at Great-Uncle Clifford asleep in the armchair, dribbling into his cold cup of tea and think, ‘Yes, my axe-murdering serial killer will be a Clifford’. Or do you stick a pin in the phone book? There is a myriad of ways I guess and I’d love to know – I’m fascinated by detail. I’m one of the ‘why?’ people. I have to know how everything works. I’ll be the one on the plane asking my husband, ‘How come we aren’t falling out of the sky?’ Fortunately for me, he is scientific/mathematical/jolly clever and knows the answers to all these things.

What do you do if you are trying to find the name for your Croatian character? Or your Namibian character? I suppose it’s not quite so easy then. A fellow member of a Facebook group recommended to its author members the following website: http://www.behindthename.com/random/. Some of you may well have come across it. I sneaked a peak and thought, gosh, that’s rather neat and thought I’d check out the English names – I opted for first name, middle name and a random surname. Tristan Raleigh Ruggles. Hmmm. Let’s try again. Eveleen Viola Myles. Oh dear. One more try. Lucius Alden Wembley. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. What’s her problem? you may ask. These are typically American names. (Are they? I don’t know – they certainly aren’t typically British). Apart from Tristan, the others certainly aren’t popular or common British names. True, the top ten baby names in the UK will differ from those in the US, and I’m guessing there won’t be any similarities. I’m not always aware when I start to read a book whether the author is from the US or British, but the choice of names is usually a good indication from which side of the pond that author is. Fair enough; but if a random selection is that obscure, is it wise to take a risk on a Serbian or Latvian name?

I read a very good book in which the male protagonist was a British professor. The author, I gathered later, had spent a short while in London and for the most part she portrayed him exemplarily; except for – his name. His name was probably last used – let me see – in AD 125. Our brilliantly portrayed English professor lost credibility with one small detail.

One author told me he had a Turkish character in his book and stumbled upon a mechanic when he took his car to be fixed, who turned out to be…tadah! Turkish. His character had his name in an instant – and a current, typical one.

I’m not a great fan of using computer-generated software to assist in things like grammar, syntax, etc, I don’t even like spellcheck – there are pitfalls (makes silly suggestions, misses obvious ones). So, at the risk of doing the granny and egg-sucking thing, if you are looking for a foreign name, perhaps check out your newsagent and pick up a newspaper or chat magazine in the language and look at celebrities’ or reporters’ names. Or go to the local Chinese/Indian/Italian/Spanish/Thai restaurant and ask the waiters’ names.

Your characters are very special to you and you want them to be equally so to your readers. You have given birth to them and honed them to perfection. Give them a name to be proud of.

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Cathy Speight is an accomplished book reviewer and Chief Consulting Reviewer at Indies Unlimited. For more information, please see the IU Bio page and her blog.[subscribe2]

Author: Cathy Speight

Reviewer Cathy Speight is British and lives in England. The Kindle revived her passion for reading and after stumbling on a Facebook group of independent authors, she now does her best to encourage and assist indies as much as possible. Books by indie author form the majority of her collection. Cathy shares her views on the books she has read on her blog.

27 thoughts on “A Reader’s POV – It’s All In The Name”

  1. Oh, you will love the detail in my novels, then. I go to great pains to get details right, and if I make mistakes, it's not for lack of trying to sail as close to reality as I can.

    Many authors, especially in category romance, choose outlandish names for their characters. Perhaps they would like to make their characters exotic in this way.

    The best place by far to get names for 'foreign' characters is the current telephone directory of the country the person hails from. I often have Italian characters in my books, and Italy is one of the countries with the most varieties of surnames in the world – there are literally millions, so choosing is fun.

    When it comes to clothes, cars, wine and food, books they read and so forth… there's nothing like the real thing.

    1. A phone book is a really good source, Rosanne, I agree – though probably best to select a name with at least a dozen entries so that you are sure it's not too obscure!

  2. Hey Cathy, I'm glad to read this – makes me feel like I'm doing something right when I pick my character names. Thanks for sharing your POV.


  3. Most of the time, my characters name themselves, but not always. When it doesn't just come to me I'll go to baby name sites – they'll let you choose using all manner of criteria – including country, region or ethnicity. If a character has an unusual name – I tend to try to stay away from the standards – I'll explain why at some appropriate spot in a novel. I have some friends with interesting names, many of whom were named that because their mother/father read it in a book.

    1. Parents make up some weird and wonderful names for their children. The best I've come across is Doremi, by a 60s band leader who wanted to give his daughter a name with a musical air – so do-re-mi evolved!

  4. *laughing softly* I'm like you when it comes to details and sudden changes in things on television. My daughters always say, 'Mom, don't takes it so seriously. It's only a commercial.' Well, such things cause me not to buy the product or disrupts my concentration in the show. When writing, I often find myself backtracking through chapters to makes sure I haven't made minute discrepancies.

    I totally understand the name thing. To me names have to fit the character and I have found myself leaving blank lines as place holders until the name just falls from the character's soul or is shouted from another character. I have changed their names in the middle of a story just because it no longer fits them. For foreign characters I usually study the meaning before choosing.
    As for naming my daughters, I often laugh at the fact I was going to name my first daughter P.L.T.(poor little thing). This was in my mind all until the day of her birth. I was really ill during pregnancy, weighed 100lbs, and she was born early weighing 2lbs. The name I gave her just popped into my head, and are derivatives of her essence. When checking their origins it turns out they mean basically a loud speaker. Dead on the nail.
    Well, to cut this short, names are important. The one my mom gave me has never really felt to be mine. It wasn't even the one she wanted to give me. It doesn't fit me, got me ridiculed as a kid, and if it weren't for the fact it would hurt her feelings, I would legally change it.

    1. That's the trouble with names – some gain popularity because of the rise and rise of a movie star or singer. When that artiste falls out of favour or circulation, the name loses trendiness and dates easily. Funny – my Italian mother didn't give me the name she really wanted. She wanted to name me Francesca, but felt bound to name me after my greatgrandmother – Caterina. I don't feel like a Francesca though!

  5. Wonderful idea about going to an ethnic restaurant for character names. I like to use character names aloud, to hear how it sounds. Another important tip: (when I named my children) The last name and first name need to work together. For example: mine have a long voweled french last name (Barbeau) and I wanted simple different strong more english first names to explain who they are but also make it easy in early grades to fit the name on an art project 🙂

    1. You are so right Caroline. Sometimes I think parents forget to say the whole name. I wonder sometimes what the parents of a son were thinking when they named him Christopher. Their surname was Cross. Hmmmm. Chris Cross.

  6. The one thing that I've never gotten any feedback on – and am exceedingly curious about – is character names. Most of my character's names were chosen with great care; others 'just came to me'. And there is only one I've not been happy with (the name that fit him had to be changed for clarity purposes, and I've never been satisfied with his new name, even though he's a minor character).

    1. Sometimes it's the unusually named characters that stick in the mind. The most unusual one I came across was Decker. The author is American, so the name might not be unusual to those across the pond – but I did struggle just a tad!

      1. Unusual is good, to my mind (I've also read a book with a protagonist – female – named Decker, and that immediately sprang to mind when you mentioned it, which has to be a good thing for that author). Bizarre is even okay. Unpronouncable I have a problem with.

  7. Characters names are their major flaw translated into another language. For example, a character who lives in fear is Peur. A character who has little identity of their own will wear standard clothes. Thank you for the interesting post, I often go back on a small detail that seems off.

    Una Tiers

  8. Good post. I have a devil of a time with names. Most other details kind of write themselves, but I always have to do the naming. Unfair. 😉

  9. When I choose a name I look for one with a sound that I think suits the character – strong sounds for strong ones and softer ones for the shy girl, etc. As I write Fantasy I also make up names I have never heard and that have an old world or foreign feel to them so they will not be associated with any 'real' society. One complaint I occasionally get it that they are too hard to pronounce. Sigh. Guess I can't have it all.

  10. My characters often name themselves. When they don't cooperate, I go to my international baby-naming book. Or I consider their age and circumstances. For instance, speaking VERY broadly, among American middle-class Jews, a 70-ish woman might be named Miriam, Estelle, Vivian or Anita. Her daughter might be Jennifer or Stacy or Elizabeth. Her granddaughter might be Amanda or Ashley. Google searches on most popular names in certain years also help.

  11. While I am doing my character sheets, especially for novels, I take the time to find the right name. It needs to fit the character. For instance, for a were-bear story I came up with Gryls Kemp. BTW Kemp means "bad-tempered warrior." The name actually makes the character in my mind. So if you read a name (I take good care of naming my secondary characters), you might learn a lot about the character. It is all in the name. 😉

  12. Oh Cathy, that's such a nice post. I like to think that readers consider those things, because. I know I do put a lot of thought into it. I even have an astrology book to help form my character's personalities :). They're real to me and deserve the details, especially in the names!

  13. Honestly, I don't really think about my audience when I'm writing … I assume if I'm having a good time, the reader will have good time … but then, you know how you spell ass u me.

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