Name That Character

2019-03-07T19:55:58-08:00March 15th, 2019|

Guest Blog by Ellen Notbohm

“We called him Barney for short,” Mark Twain relates in Following the Equator. “We couldn’t use his real name, there wasn’t time.”

Long name, short name. Popular name, uncommon name. Family name, Biblical name, exotic name. Compound name, nickname, unusual-monogram name.

If you’re writing fiction, you won’t escape having to invent names for characters. Some authors find this fun, others agonize, still others wait for divine inspiration.

I excruciated over naming my real-life children and felt no different when naming the characters in my historical novel. Both are so permanent! Would the name fit the character, or should I bestow a name that deliberately did not fit? Does it have any unsavory associations that would be unfair to the character, or readers? Is it phonetic, or will readers be mispronouncing it in their heads all through the story?

Sometimes it felt like a riff on an old song. If you’re happy and you know it, overthink . . .

Maybe you’ll never get what one feisty ancestor of mine called “the frantic dithers” over character names like I did. But if you do, here are some avenues to explore.

1.  Wandering through cemeteries often yields unusual names you might not happen across in internet searches. I keep an A – Z list that includes Alfretta, Azilee, DeEtta, Doraettie, Elbryanna, Hansina, Icyphine, Lazette,  Leahdora, Phrosine, Royaldine, and Vyretta.

2.  The Social Security Administration maintains lists of baby names ranked by popularity for any year after 1879, from John and William and Mary and Anna in 1880, to Liam and Noah and Emma and Olivia in 2017.

For my historical novel The River by Starlight, I calculated a character’s birth year and consulted the SSA lists, going far enough down to find names that were interesting but not bizarre. Of course, there will always be the occasional character whose bizarre name is a necessary element of the story. Think Humbert Humbert (Lolita), Holly Golightly (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs), Willy Wonka.

3.  Browsing the US census records for the locality about which you’re writing can give you an interesting sense of both given names and surnames at the time, for people of all ages. As an indexer for the 1940 census, I was struck by the number of women named Edna, a name seldom given to girls today. Using internet sites such as Baby Name Wizard, you can see the curve over time of a name’s popularity. Edna peaked as a baby name in the 1880s, then declined steadily until virtually out of use by the 1980s. An author can manipulate the popularity (or unpopularity) of a name at a given time to work for or against a character.

4.  Surnames aren’t just surnames. Nineteenth century parents commonly gave babies their mother’s maiden name (or a grandparent’s surname) as a first name. Hence we have an ancestor named Bushrod Doggett. Look to your own family tree for possibilities.

5.  Parents across time have named children after particular character traits they hoped those children would embrace. In my family tree, we have women named Mindwell and Thankful. It inspired me to write this amusing excerpt from The River by Starlight:

Annie’s great-uncle and aunt believed all girls should be named Mary, and they inflicted that on their five daughters. Then they compounded the fright by giving them virtuous middle names. Annie ticks them off on her fingers. “Mary Faith, Mary Constance, Mary Patientia, Mary Arete, and, taking utter leave of their senses at the end, Mary Mindwell. The legend,” she relates, “is that Mindwell did not. Mind well. As an adult she went by Mamie, keeping enough of the two Ms to aggravate her parents while she enjoyed a long career in burlesque in Chicago.”

We see a similar trend in contemporary names with handles like Liberty, Verity, Justice, Trinity, Serenity, Faith, Harmony.

6.  Anyone remember phone books? Even before phone books, there were city directories, and they are rich sources of both given names and surnames. Many large-city directories going back as much as 150 years are now available online. Libraries, historical societies, and genealogical societies house many more, on microfilm and in hard copy.

7.  Websites abound that aggregate foreign surnames, handy if you need a name for your Finnish fisherman or Persian weaver.

And one more wise consideration from our sage Mark Twain: “…when a teacher calls a boy by his entire name, it means trouble.” (Eruption). Test run your character’s name out loud—with a holler, a growl, a simper, a laugh.

Does s/he answer?


An award-winning author in both nonfiction and fiction, Ellen Notbohm’s work has informed, inspired, and guided millions of readers in more than twenty languages. In addition to her acclaimed historical novel The River by Starlight and her globally renowned books on autism and, her articles and columns on such diverse subjects as history, genealogy, baseball, writing and community affairs have appeared in major publications and captured audiences on every continent.

The River by Starlight has been recognized with awards for historical, regional, and literary fiction. Its focus on maternal mental health and gender bias in the early 20th century explores a history rarely addressed in fiction.

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