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Saturday, June 14, 2014

What's in a Name?

By English Rose (aka Jill McDonald-Constable)

How do you decide on the names for your heroes and heroines?

Do they come from real people? Places you know? Or are they made up. Then again, perhaps they are seated deep in your subconscious, originating from films you have seen or books you have read? Do certain names ‘belong’ to certain parts of the country? Do they tell us of the trade that person is involved in?

For example, with surnames in particular, here in UK if you have the name Jones or Williams, it’s a fair bet that your family is, or was, Welsh. The name Alexander, and names beginning with Mc, are usually Scottish. Sometimes the area of a name is even smaller.

Using my own family as an example, up in Yorkshire is a village called Wolstenholme, and that was also my father’s surname. Looking at it, the name could almost be German, and that caused some problems when Mum and Dad wanted to marry in 1947. After I was born (by C section), and while Mum was still in hospital, she was often asked if Dad was German. It was 1948, and of course the War was still foremost in people’s minds. I don’t know what they would have done had she said yes!

Have you had a character with a similar problem?

I have noticed that a lot of Cowboy heroes take their first names from of States or towns in America, think Cheyenne, Tulsa, Laredo, etc. I don’t think we have any such ‘Romantic’ sounding names here in UK! How about a hero called Accrington, Yorkshire, Salford, or Great Harwood! I don’t think so, do you!

Although, we do have a seaside town here called Scarborough. For a short time, I went to school with a boy whose parents had called him after that town, because he’d been conceived there! He hated it, and we all called him ‘Scar’, which, of course, his parents hated. Would the name ‘Scar’ be a ‘goody’ or a ‘baddy’, do you think? I think he was my first ‘crush’ actually, although I believe it was because his name sounded so – well, so ‘exotic’ to us then.

Of course with the shrinking of our world, names can move quickly from one country to another much faster than ever before, so a name which used to be common only in one small area of a country, can now be found world-wide.

As many of you will know, many surnames were originally associated with the trade carried out by a person many centuries ago. For instance, Smith, Baker, Butcher, Fletcher, these are all old trades, and before names were set in stone, a person would be named for his trade. That could be a lot more difficult to do these days, what name would you give to a computer engineer, or a lift operator, or fighter pilot? Or even a Cowboy? ‘Jack Cowboy’ or ‘Peter Fighter Pilot’ just don’t have the right ‘ring’ to them do they?

Characters from books and films who we ‘feel for’ at the time, can also root themselves deep in our brains, and we can find ourselves drifting towards those ‘familiar’ names for our characters, as well as drifting away from the names of those characters we didn’t like! As a young teen, in common with millions of other young girls all over the civilized world, I was mad about ‘Little Joe’ of Bonanza fame! Now, I won’t call any of my cowboy heroes Joe, none of them would match up, in my mind, to his character. Equally, (and I do apologize to their fans out there in advance) I was never keen on Clint Walker or Clint Eastwood, so none of my heroes are named Clint.

Names are vitally important in creating our characters of course, as we need to be able to ‘visualize’ that person whilst reading about them. Think of your favourite Romantic hero, give him a different name; now how do you feel? Could you imagine if the dark and brooding Heathcliffe had been named Fred? Or if his Kathy had been called Susan. What if Mr Darcy had actually been Mr Bloggs? Who would swoon over him then? And, following on from a recent post, would it have stuck in our minds for as long as it has, if the hero of the film ‘Shane’ had been called ‘Archibald’? “Come back, Archibald” doesn’t have quite the same impact does it?

Are there any Cowboy heroes with names like that? Or Algernon, Harold, Jeremy, Herbert, no, usually their names are strong, to match the men!

Lately I have been guilty of using ‘favourite’ names, to the extent that, I realized this week, I have both a Cowboy hero and a Contemporary hero with the same name, Jake, why I hadn’t actually noticed that before now, I don’t know. Okay, it won’t be a problem, as they are different genres, and very different looking characters, but maybe I should change one of them? Does that happen to you?

Of course, each of us has a different ‘view’ of the character from their name; I suppose we overlay our own personal heroes and heroines onto the ones we are reading about? The author can assist us in visualising the character, by sketching out a brief description, hair color and length, eye color, build etc. In the end though, it’s our subconscious that puts the finishing touches to the person, and comes up with a swoon-worthy hero, or strongly independent heroine. Give the same story to 100 people and ask them to draw the main character, I bet you’d get 100 different pictures!

As for the ‘made-up’ names, well there must be as many ways of making them up, as there are people on the planet! I use a variety of ways myself, and sometimes they just ‘come’ to me and seem to fit the character at the time. I do like it when we are ‘given’ characters, and names. When they just come in to our heads from somewhere, they are usually the best ones!

I would love to hear your name stories, how do you decide on your main characters. If you are a prolific writer, how on earth do you come up with so many names all the time? And should I change the name of one of my two Jakes?

Thank you for stopping by.  X

Saint or Sinner

Leroy Vance is a hard-hearted bounty hunter, hot on the heels of a gang of outlaws, when he gets his horse shot out from under him. Injured, and on foot, in the wide flat lands, Vance faces almost certain death. Help comes in the form of a buggy driven by two foreigners, father and son. They take him to the nearest town, and drive off without a word. When he eventually tries to buy a new horse, Vance is directed to the ranch owned by the foreigners. There, he finds some excellent stock. But the ranch holds a secret. The foreigners don't train the horses themselves; that is done by the wife of the younger man, and her little brother, who are both abused and beaten by the men. Vance swears to rescue the woman and boy. But Fate has a few tricks up her sleeve, and a lot can change in a short time. Vance falls in love with the man's wife as he helps them to escape. But with her husband hot on their heels, will the trio escape? And will Leroy Vance, bounty hunter and sinner, finally find True Love with the wife of another man?

On the web:

Also writing as Amos Carr:
The Ghosts of Poynter (Robert Hale, London, 2012)
Crazy Man Cade (Robert Hale, London, 2012)


  1. Names do mean a lot. I tend to harsh sounds like you Jake, Joseph, John, although my current characters are King and Sam.
    You do give one a lot to think about. The names feel like they should be a desciption of the character and each of us has an association with certain names, perhaps from our past, that we tend to go back to. Doris

  2. Hello Doris, thanks for commenting. I have an Aunt named Doris, the name always evokes fond memories of times spent with her. When her daughter was born, my Aunt and Uncle decided to call her Doris also! Confusing! And it meant that in the end they were called Big |Doris and Little Doris! As soon as my cousin was old enough she changed her name to Christine by Deed Poll. It's a lot better now.
    Thank you.

  3. Sometimes I agonize over naming my characters, other times, the characters come to me already named. Either way, I run a background check, so-to-speak, on the names for appropriateness to time period, country of origin, etc. because it just doesn't work for me to create a red headed Irish hero and then name him Ludwig van Messerschmidt or Francois LeRoux unless I explain the incongruitity with a darn good reason. lol I'm reminded of a restaurant's name that made me question the cuisine: 'Adolf's Authentic Mexican Food'. 0_o

    Sometimes, I can be a name snob, because if I read a story in which characters have names that are just too darn hard to figure out the phoenetic pronunciation and I end up translating 'Kvethvjynth' to 'Kevin", I may have trouble relating to the character. lol

    Another example is the heroine's name being something like Tiffany in a Viking saga (no offense to the Tiffanys out there). I'm not going to take the author or the story seriously... well, unless it's a time-slip story and Tiffany drops in on Bjorn the Foehammer. Even then, it would help me like her more if the heroine then took on a Viking name. ;-)

    I'm okay with a character who has a strikingly unusual name if there's a plausible explanation, but something more than, "My dad named me Sue because he wasn't going to be around to help me grow up to be a man." Bwahaha (channeling Johnny Cash here)

    You gave me a laugh with, "Archibald! Come back!" That was some funny stuff. And, you're right, it doesn't work.

    I also have trouble using names of established famous characters in my stories, even though I might love the names. Your examples of Mr. Darcy, Heathcliff, and Shane are great examples. Readers already have an image of who those names belong to. These are examples of names I don't use in my stories because I identify the name with a particular character and/or story: Hermione (Harry Potter); Mr. Anderson (Matrix); most Shakespearean main characters; Bond (unless as a first name); Tyrel, Orrin, and Tell (Louis L'Amour's Sackett brothers);and many Hollywood names are out.

    Isn't is crazy how we have certain stereotypes in our heads when it comes to names and characters? (or is it just me?) Remember in the movie 'Ice Age, Dawn of the Dinosaurs', when Manny learns the name of the gigantic dinosaur is Rudy? Manny says: I was worried it was something intimidating, like "Sheldon" or "Tim". I need my villains and heroes to have strong names. Now what a 'strong' name means to me may not be what it means to someone else. *shrugging*

    Anyway, thanks for the though-provoking conversation.

  4. Hello Kaye, thanks for joining. What a great in depth reply! You're right, a name has to have a grounding in the age you are writing about. It's easy to find out what names were popular in various times, there are lots of places on the net to find those out aren't there? Oh, Those stereotypes eh! Every time I hear the name George, I want to say (sic) ' I'll hold him and stroke him and call him George' makes me giggle every time! And never call anyone Forrest will you? All I'll see will be Tom Hanks running round the world!
    Thanks for the giggle Kaye!

  5. Jill, I am a name collector! I have been since I was a little girl. I remember BEGGING my mother to buy me a baby name book in the bookstore when I was about 10--she did, but I don't think she ever understood my fascination with names. LOL

    I think part of it comes from me having such an odd pronunciation of my own name--CHair-yl (really, like CHAIR) rather than Sheryl. And my middle name is Kathlyn rather than Kathleen or Kathryn. I've only met two other "Kathlyns" in my life, and 3 other CHeryls (who pronounce it like I do.) That's why I named my daughter JESSICA! LOL

    As for heroes, I love the hard - sounding names, and unfortunately those can be used to death. Like you, I have a character named Johnny in a contemporary WIP I'm working on, but have used it before in a historical story, too. I agree about having to be careful about the time period the story is taking place in with what the characters are named. That draws me right out of a story, to have a character named something modern in any kind of historical story. It's enough to make me just put the book down right then.

    Very interesting post! Lots of food for thought here!

    1. CHAIR-yl - *wink* Good to know how you pronounce your name. Thanks.

      I have to confess that I have name issues because of my real given name, which is the major reason I decided to write under a pen name.

      And, I, too, have a baby name book. The publication date is around 1970. I've used it so much in my quest for the perfect name for my characters that I've had to run tape along the inside pages to keep them from falling out. lolol

    2. Hello Cheryl! Nice to see you here. Thank s for the comment. I know what you mean about modern names in historical stories, that really 'jars' on the brain doesn't it? Unless as Kaye said (and there's a nice name with quite an unusual spelling) it's some sort of time slip story then it can be forgiven, just!
      Will 'speak soon'. Thanks.

    3. Hello again Kaye! (I might 'steal' your name for one of my characters!) Two comments, lovely! I actually have to make my confession here, I have four name books! This sounds like one of those meetings now - 'My name is - and I collect names'. But you NEED them! Being published at different times they give you names that were popular around that time, and are a very useful tool. As is the phone book, which I use if I am stuck for a surname. Close your eyes and open it at any page, poke a finger at the page and open your eyes! Sometimes it's a disaster, but you do get the odd gem in there!
      Thanks for your visit Kaye!

  6. Names for character --wow, huge subject. I would definitely have a difficult time finding good English names, so I sympathize with your situation.
    In my Winatuke series, I use the names of captures for the lead men, and flowers for the ladies in the same family. I use Romanian names for the Gypsies and made up names for the villains.
    I study time period names for my Westerns and (a little secret), I use the names of people I don't like for my villains.
    A very interesting blog today, Jill.

  7. Hello Sarah, thanks for dropping by. I like that you use the names of people you don't like for your villains, I do that too! It's very satisfying when they come to a sticky end isn't it! If I can be of any help to you, or anyone else, with English names place names etc. don't hesitate to ask will you?
    Thank you for your comment.

  8. An interesting post on names. I've been a name collector for some time and jot down any unusual names I hear or happen to read. I've found (believe it or not) the obituary section of the newspaper is full of names that seem to be classic. I also take many of my names from the Bible since these names have been used through the centuries. I do keep a record of names I've used in my books and I try not to repeat them, especially for my main characters.
    Thanks for writing this post.

  9. Hello Agnes.I don't think we've 'spoken' before, thank you for dropping by. You know, I find it too hard to read the obits. I do think that in the 'Wild West' era, there were a lot of Biblical names about, maybe it was because there were a lot of Religious groups settling around that time? Thanks again for your comment , Agnes.