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What’s In a Name?

Many years ago, a BFF named her newest mutt “Gracie.” I have this…thing about naming pets with people names. Back then, it wasn’t such a big deal. But sure enough, in the interim decade “Grace” has become one of the most popular new/old names for girls. Every time I meet a young woman named Grace, I think of that dog. I like the dog, and I like most Graces. But once in awhile I meet one that makes me feel indignant for the dog.

Of all the power words in our language, names hold the most magic. I chose my pseudonym because (a) my husband’s first name is Steven and as a romance novelist I thought it entirely appropriate that my name be a possessive of his and (b) I thought it would bring me luck. On the day I settled on it, I looked at a bestseller list. Stephen King was on it. And Stephenie Meyer. And Stephanie Laurens. Seemed like a good crowd to hang out with–I could sidle in subtly to the cocktail party.

Some authors find it easy to name characters. I don’t. Just as it took me the better part of pregnancy to come up with my sons’ names, it takes me most of my rough draft to name my hero–oh, how I agonize about those alpha males and their names! For some reason, the women’s names come more easily: I wanted an old-fashioned, quiet, but unusual name to match my old-fashioned, quiet and unusual heroine. “Delia” came and Delia stayed.

Grant Wolverton, however, was another story: He spent most of the first draft of the book as “Hirogai”—a play on Baby Bear’s “Hero Guy” character on Sesame Street.. Grant came from money and needed a moneyed name. But he needed a name that speaks of internal, personal power as well—not just what he’d inherited. And he needed a name a woman would like to cry in her throes of passion.

Try it—close your eyes and breathe, “Grant. Oh, Grant.”

Now, open your eyes.

No. Seriously. Stop that and come back here.

In my life, I’ve named babies and businesses, pets and computers, characters and cars, and I’ve renamed myself thrice over. Every time I name someone or something, I feel as if I’ve waved a wand.

What about you? Do you like your name? If you meet a character in a book whose name you don’t like (or who reminds you of someone you dislike) does it make it difficult to read?

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38 Responses

  1. No… But I find it difficult if say, the hero has the same name as my brother or a close family member. Also if a heroine has the same name as my mother, grandmother that kind of thing.

    The reason for this is, I like there to be SOME intimacy in my books. =D

    • Emily,
      When I run across a book with one of my sons’ names in it, I tuck it away. My future daughters-in-law are getting a stash for their engagements…and I don’t read the book, myself 🙂

  2. Wow, look at all those Keri’s! Just a fluke that I decided to be a Teri!

  3. I had to keep my real first name (Cynthia) when I went looking for a pen name. But in my non-writing world, I’m more “Cyndi” than “Cynthia”. In fact, if someone calls me “Cynthia”, then I know that either they don’t know me that well OR it’s a person from my professional life as opposed to my private life.

    If I could do the “pen name” all over again, I’d not have an apostrophe in my last name (D’Alba). I’ve learned to type it quite quickly but signing is still tough,

    And I don’t chance character names easily. Once the character gets a name and begins “acting” in the story, he/she becomes real to me and takes on the characteristics of the name.

    It doesn’t bother me when people name their pets with human names. I had a couple of friends who named their dog after me (before they had kids) and I thought it was a hoot.

  4. I love being Jodi, but sometimes wish for something less 70s-dual-gendered. And yes, if the heroine’s name is Alissa, or any other permutation thereof, I’m likely to wish her acne and menstrual cramps instead of hoping she’ll get a HEA. High school left some scars. 😉

  5. Fun topic, Keri! I love stories behind names. I was named for my father (Jerry) and his co-pilot (Ray) by a bunch of drunken flyboys waiting for my arrival in a bar, all of whom assumed I was a boy. Growing up as shy girl, I wasn’t really shot in the pants with my name, but I got used to it.

    My characters in RiverTime, Nocona and Justin Wiley were named for the boot boxes they were found in when they were abandoned as newborns on a doorstep–had fun with that one.

    Really enjoyed Stone Kissed–waiting for the next one!

  6. I do associate names but not to the extent that it would make it difficult to continue reading a book. I do, however, do what you do. When I’m introduced to a person and their name was also a past pet name, or an ex-girlfriend of my past boyfriends, etc…I can’t help but stop and think of that. Sometimes I cringe, and other times, I laugh to myself.

    Great post, Keri!

  7. I’ve never run across a story where a character’s name interfered with reading. I didn’t like my name when I was a kid (and yes, Jennette Marie Powell is my real name). I’m not sure why. But by the time I went to college I’d done a complete 180! Naming my child was hard. We never did settle on a boy’s name, so luckily she was a girl. My characters’ names just come to me, like a gift from the muse. Don’t be too jealous – that’s the only part that comes that easily!

    • ROFL Jennette. I picked out Son #3 about 3 months before he was born. Dr. S wasn’t convinced by my choice–four days before he was born, he bought a baby names book in Barnes & Noble. I told him on the drive to the hospital if he could come up with something better AND convince me between contractions, we’d go with a new name. …And we didn’t.

  8. You crack me up, Keri. I didn’t like my name growing up because most kids had never heard it before, didn’t know how to spell it, and it wasn’t cute like Kelly or Sarah. But now I like being different.

    I might have a hard time using a name for my character if I already have strong associations to it, but I don’t have a problem reading about characters with those names.

    And I absolutely refuse to write a book with my husband’s or boys’ names in it. I can’t write a sex scene and be thinking of my kids. Eew.

    • Gwen–totally with you on that! And as a result, I run into contemps I can’t read because of the oldest, Westerns I can’t read because of the middle son and Scottish historicals I can’t read because of the 3rd! But I don’t have trouble with my husband’s name as hero b/c I’m in heroine’s POV anyway 😉

  9. There are a LOT of names I dislike, but they somehow never interfere with enjoyment of a book, as long as the characters are likeable. My kids’ names are less unusual than I want them to be, but still don’t come up in books often. I don’t think I’d have any issues then, either, for the same reason. It’s about the character, not the name.

    That said, when I’m writing, I can’t get ANYWHERE until I have the characters’ names, and they have to be right. They also trend in certain ways. I like names with hard consonants in them, and overuse M, R, K, S, and T. 🙂

    • Natalie, I’ve learned to (a) keep a chart (I keep trying to reuse names) and (b) Google the names before getting solid on them. I had a wonderful name for a hero. Then I googled him and found out he was a Canadian serial killer.

      • I have a spreadsheet, and one sheet lays out the names by title, the other combines them all (I’m in the 600s) so I can sort them and see what I’ve used a lot, and in what ways.

        I rarely Google them, though! Never thought to.

  10. Names don’t really bother me in a book unless they are so different that I have a hard time figuring out how to say them. In that case, It makes me stumble across them as I am reading the book. Don’t get me wrong, I love unique names – just not names I can’t pronounce.

    My daughter’s name is Jade Amber and she named my granddaughter Lilith Grace.

  11. Well, you already know I hate writing my name and my oddness with the letter K (seriously, why didn’t I pick a fun letter to write???) BUT it has been fun being confused with you. 🙂

    For character names, I just hang back and wait for one to come to me. current heroine is named Flora and I LOVE it.

  12. I name my cats after gods. I have an Isis and a Loki. 🙂 As for heroes…every time I read a medieval romance with the name “Rannulf” I wanna gag. Always loved the name Damian, but I married one so I can’t use it. Though I do have a “Dante” 🙂 I like

  13. Ooh, I wish I’d spotted this post sooner! I’m obsessed with names – I can spend hours, days even, searching for the appropriate name for a character. And even then I’m likely to change it if there is a shift in the personality of this character as I move on with the story.

    I love old-fashioned names – Lenore, Dorothea, Jessamine – as well as Celtic and foreign names.

    When I was in grade school I would fill whole notebooks with my favorite names and combinations of names, presumably for my future children. I must have known even then that I’d have a lot of “children” to name – even though most are the characters in my stories!

    BTW, like you, Keri, I took my husband’s name as my pen name. It seemed to have a good vibe!

    • Did your kids’ names come out of The Notebook?????

      And yeah, Becke. I bet if we did a survey we’d find a lot of romance writers who incorporated their loves in their pseudonym.

    • Mine doesn’t go back as far, but I keep a notebook of names I like, too! I used to work in short-term disability, which gave me access to tons of names, organically. I always seem to work better with that than with a database or name book.

  14. Ah, I typed a comment for this one, but it didn’t post. (pout)

    I love using names I wish I had. I also like choosing them to fit the character. For example, Dawn in my second book – soft, feminine, and organized. Dawn sounded like the name for that. Kate – hot, bold with an edge of sophistication. Right now, my heroine is Lou and she’s bold on the outside, very innocent on the inside. Funny thing is, these are my takes on the heroines names. If the reader knows a Dawn as a mean-tempered shrew then that’s the context she will have for that character.

    Isn’t it funny how our preferences color things like how we view a character? Nice topic

    • Liz, in the end it is one of those variables we simply can’t control. I know a Dawn who’s much more like your Kate, for example. I hate to think that someone would put down Stone Kissed because Delia was the chief Mean Girl who tormented her through middle school, but hey…stuff happens.

      So yeah–let’s pick names WE love and write on!

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