What’s in a Name?

Today’s topic comes courtesy of reader Kady Underwood (and, as Kathleen Underwood, cover artist for Orphans in the Storm.) Talented gal, and great question, first posed in my Lion and Thistle Facebook group, where we talk about all things historical romance. We had some interesting discussion on that one, so I thought I’d share the love and expand on my answers here.

The question:

Those of you who write…do you collect names for your characters? Have you ever liked a name and built a character around it? What comes first…the character or the name?

My (expanded) answer:

Great question. I’ll break that down into the individual questions.

1) Those of you who write…do you collect names for your characters?

Big yes on collecting names. I have been collecting name books since I was very young. I want to say eight, maybe. I remember having to beg my mother for my first one, because it physically hurt, I wanted it that much. Thankfully, she got it for me, and thus the beast was born. The collection has grown a bit since then, not counting websites like Nameberry, or Behind the Name, and shows no signs of stopping. For naming characters in historicals, my go-to reference is Names Through the Ages, by Teresa Norman, whose A World of Baby Names is also useful. I am on my second copy, which is showing as much wear as its predecessor. For modern-day characters, have a look at Beyond Jennifer and Jason, Madison and Montana: What to Name Your Baby Now, by Linda Rozencrantz and Pamela Redmond Satran. Besides having the most names ever (probably) on the cover of a book about names, Rozencrantz and Satran take a different approach, grouping the names by image, rather than origin or meaning.

Names can come from anywhere, and I do keep a mental file of names I like or find interesting, besides my collection of name books (my prized book is a book of British Isles names, published in Ireland.) If I like the name, it goes in the vault, to wait for its time.

2) Have you ever liked a name and built a character around it?

Again, yes. Jonnet, the heroine of Orphans in the Storm, actually gets this twice, because she has two names – one she was given at birth, and the other that she grew up with. Her birth name, I had been holding onto since I was in college, and stumbled across it in a historical romance I found on the shelves of the used bookstore in town. I did not get that book, and still regret it, but knew I would use it for a heroine of my own, one day. One day turned into double digit years. Sometimes, it takes a while for the right character to fit the name, but I think it’s worth the wait. I still have a few names waiting for the right character. 

3)  What comes first…the character or the name?

It depends. Sometimes I put the name out there and see who answers (I don’t see it so much as “creating” a character as us finding each other. ) Sometimes, they walk into my head, name and all, and I have very little to do with it. I even had one character tell me I got her name wrong, she wasn’t going to answer to what I wanted to call her, and if I wanted to write her, I had to use her proper name. She was right. What I wanted to call her wasn’t her name at all, and now, I can’t imagine her being called anything else.

I’ve also had a character who couldn’t tell me his given name, because he didn’t know it. We both found out near the end of the first draft, when his heroine and I both tracked down the relative who could give him the missing pieces of that particular puzzle, so it all worked out in the end.

Naming a character is different every time. Sometimes, the name does come first, and sometimes, it comes last. I’ve written chunks of outline with “Hero” and “Heroine” used as placeholders. That isn’t the case with Her Last First Kiss. I knew Hero and Heroine’s names early on, but am keeping those to myself (and critique partners) when talking about the book for now. I suspect they’ll be more forthcoming once the second draft is done.

When Melva and I first conceived the Beach Ball, the only thing we had to go on for names at first was that she wanted a one syllable name for Girl. I shot out the first few that came to mind, before we hit one we both liked. Since Girl had a one syllable name, Guy needed a longer one; his name has three. Same process; shoot out three syllable names until the right one stuck.

With my focus, for the time being, on eighteenth-century romance, getting together a list of male, female and family names appropriate to the period is probably a good idea, and I would need a new notebook for the purpose…hmmm…..

Thanks for the question, Kady, and thanks for the gorgeous cover on Orphans in the Storm.





2 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Anytime, darling! Always happy to help when I can! By the way, I have loved Jonnet’s name since I first heard it!

    Right now, the name I’m waiting for a character to show up for me is Aine. She’s being shy. 😋

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