Writer Wednesday: Naming Names

Our Writer Wednesday topic this month is “tell us you favorite character name,” but I couldn’t think of one, WW Octobereither as a reader or as a writer. But names are important, and for a writer they require quite a bit of thought, and sometimes just as much planning.

Many of my favorite keeper books are science fiction, because I enjoy the world building. And names are often part of that world building. Character names in books like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, or Marion Zimmer Bradley’s tales of Darkover often tell the reader quite a bit about family, social position, or occupation.

I find I can’t write about a character until I know his or her “true name.” From time to time I have realized that I simply can’t remember a supporting character’s name, a sure sign that whatever name I stuck the poor soul with is the wrong one. I like to play with names, and sometimes they take on an extra layer of meaning. In one of my manuscripts, the heroine is called Liz, short for Elizabeth, and the fact that the Spanish version of her name is Isabel becomes an important plot point. In another story, the heroine calls herself Charlie, but the hero, a European with a formal streak, always addresses her by her proper name, Charlotte.

Sometimes a character’s true name never shows up, suggesting that there’s something else about the Columbo & Dogcharacter that isn’t working. That thought reminded me of Lieutenant Columbo, who never had a first name, and his dog, who never had a name at all. Columbo tried out several names for the dog during the series, but none of them seemed to work, and the dog remained Dog. Come to think of it, Mrs. Columbo didn’t have a first name, either.

On the other hand, I’ve recently been reading a series of old-fashioned Regency romances, originally published in the 1990s, in which nearly all the male characters have at least three names, first, last, and title(s). How other people address these men speaks to relationships and social position. People in contemporary stories are generally casual about names, but in historical tales, arriving at a first name relationship may be a major romantic milestone.

Do you have a favorite character name? Or are there names that push your buttons and make you put a book down? For more thoughts on names, visit Wednesday Writers Sharon Wray, Lauren Christopher, Natalie Meg Evans, and Wendy La Capra (and be sure to check out Wendy’s upcoming release, Duchess Decadence).

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sharon Wray
    Oct 14, 2015 @ 07:07:52

    I totally forgot about Columbo’s dog being named Dog. How funny that Dog, and Mrs. Columbo, ended up being perfect names.

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    • Kay Hudson
      Oct 14, 2015 @ 08:35:20

      They (whoever “they” are) tried to turn Mrs. Columbo into a character with her own series, but even Kate Mulgrew couldn’t pull that one off. Like Niles’ invisible wife on Frasier, some characters are best left unseen, and perhaps even unnamed. I wonder how that would work in a book. Hmmm . . .

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  2. tamrabaumann
    Oct 14, 2015 @ 09:34:45

    Ha! Good points about Columbo’s dog and wife! I never realized that! And yes, the old forgetting a secondary’s character name has happened to me before. Nice post!

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  3. Wendy LaCapra
    Oct 14, 2015 @ 10:31:33

    Thank you for the shout-out, Kay! I love the point about not truly being able to actualize a character until he/she has the right name. And I love the Charlie/Charlotte point as well. My sister is a Charlotte and though I sometimes *think* of her as Charlie, I almost never call her Charlie.

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    • Kay Hudson
      Oct 14, 2015 @ 14:02:30

      I have gotten absolutely stuck until I finally got a character’s name right. My characters don’t generally grab the story and run away with it, but without the right name, they won’t do anything at all.

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  4. mizwrite
    Oct 14, 2015 @ 18:37:56

    I never really watched Columbo, but I love that storyline that he had a “Dog” who simply remained “Dog.” (Sad and sweet at the same time.) And interesting about the science fiction names — wow, those can get elaborate and interesting!

    As for irksome names in books, I’ve never put a book down because of it, but I really don’t like names that are initials in text. It’s simply visually distracting — the cap letters, I guess, all over the page. So that’s my biggest pet peeve.

    Great post, Kay!

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    • Kay Hudson
      Oct 14, 2015 @ 21:38:28

      Hi, Lauren! Those old Columbo episodes are still fun, especially for all the guest stars (Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner both played murderers). I have a particular soft spot for Dog because I belonged to a basset hound myself for a number of years–they are wonderful dogs. (Mine did have a name: Albert.)

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