Call a player “Sycamore Flynn” or “Melbourne Trench”
and something begins to happen. He shrinks or grows,
stretches out or puts on muscle. Sprays singles to all fields
or belts them over the wall.
—Robert Coover, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.,
J. Henry Waugh, Prop.
No, this isn’t about outing sock puppets. After the heated debate of yesterday on the issue of fake internet reviews, I thought a little cooling off—a palette cleanser, if you will—was in order.
(Actually, I’d already written the damn thing and I didn’t have time to whip up another.)
So, gentle readers, let’s turn our beautiful minds to the subject of character names—even though I’m sure some crank out there will read this and think what I’m secretly doing is giving everyone various ways to create pseudonyms for sock puppet villainy.
I’d rather shoot myself, frankly.
Anyhoo, here goes:
My favorite character name of all time comes from Richard Price’s Clockers: Buddha Hat.
No, he’s not a Zen milliner. He’s a drug enforcer. A bit counter-intuitive? Oh yeah. Ergo, perfect.
Best name I discovered in real life I couldn’t use because, well, a real person already owned it (and not a terribly nice person): Seth Booky.
Most writers will tell you choosing a name is one of the most crucial parts of a character’s depiction. Get the name right, so many other things just seem to fall into place. Get it wrong, everything else is a struggle.
Once you know the character’s name, once you can picture her vividly enough to know that a certain name suits her—or better yet, is intrinsic to her—you’re pretty much home free.
It’s sometimes said we grow into our faces, coming to resemble our real selves as we reach our prime. I wonder if we don’t also grow into our names: George Clooney. Hillary Clinton. Art Garfunkel.
A name can often substitute for a physical description if chosen wisely—think of the names from the TV series The Wire: Jimmy McNulty, Stringer Bell, Omar Little, “Proposition Joe” Stewart, Snoop Pearson, Bunny Colvin, Cutty Wise, Bunk Moreland, Bubbles.
And returning to Richard Price (who wrote for The Wire), there’s a man with a true knack for picture-ready names: Rocco Klein, Strike Dunham, André the Giant, Shorty Jeeter, Lorenzo Council, Little Dap Williams.
Other memorable character names:
Chili Palmer (Get Shorty)
Baby Suggs (Beloved)
Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
Ed Punch and Al Catalog (The Shipping News)
Ree Dolly (Winter’s Bone)
Madeline Dare (A Field of Darkness)
Rooster Cogburn (True Grit)
Jenny Petherbridge (Nightwood)
That said, there’s an intriguing challenge in a seemingly lackluster name—Jim Williams, Jane Smith, John Harris. Such names, by denying you a unique visual image, force you to remember that the character can’t be confined to such an image. He’s more than that. And he’s going to change, even as his name doesn’t.
But where do I get really good names, I hear you cry.
There is of course every author’s friend, the Random Name Generator, which has the eminently useful “obscurity factor” for increasingly oddball names. (Anything over 5 puts you pretty much in Dickens territory).
There’s the Fake Name Generator, which also provides an address!
There is the Fantasy Name Generator, which doubles as a secret source for baby names among Trekkies: Pollyever, Belpaw, Untar, Ghal.
There is the Seventh Sanctum Name Generator (prepare to waste a day on this sucker).
And, as they say, so on. Just Google “random name generator” and stand back.
But I invariably find the best sources are those that give you names people really use. A computer can crank out nearly infinite possibilities, but the fact a loving mother actually said—Yep, that’s my baby’s name—makes a subtle, sneaky difference. At least it does for me.
Which is why I’ve sought out real-life sources for interesting names. And what I’ve discovered, quite by accident, is that sports provides some of the strongest or most unique names for both men and women available.
Don’t believe me?
Brandi Chastain. Serena Williams. Dakota Stone.
Jake Stoneburner. Pudge Cotton. Philander Moore (I’m not making that up.)
That’s a mere sample. Let me share with you a few more names of athletes I just found too intriguing not to tuck away for further use. (A gift from me to you.)
Note: You seldom want to steal a name wholesale, so consider this list a set of parts, with interchangeable first and last names.
Carolina Duer (great name for an assassin)
Christina Hammer (yes, she’s a boxer)
Ann Marie Saccurato
Okay, these are a little more offbeat. I gathered them from an article titled
“Coolest Names in College Football 2012.”
Barkevious Mingo (my absolute favorite)
Wonderful Terrific Monds II
Leviticus Payne (close second)
Bacarri Rambo (my cocktail choice)
Konockus Sashington (second runner-up)
Fudge Van Hooser (I mean, really)
Now, I realize many of those names are “too weird not to be real,” and thus problematic as character names, which have to be believable in a way real names don’t. Reality always has the upper hand in weirdness, because it doesn’t have to make sense.
But for secondary characters or just a walk on the wiggy side, this just might point you in a useful direction.
Oh, and one last thing: If you read an online review by Barkevious Mingo, it’s not me. I promise.
* * * * *
So, Murderateros — what are some of your favorite character names?
What are your favorite sources for names?
Have you grown into your name? Your face?
Do any of the names I’ve listed above suggest characters to you? Describe them for us.
Using mix-and-match, what character names have you been able to create from the above lists?
* * * * *
Jukebox Hero of the Week: Bond. James Bond. Meet the Beatles:
This could possibly be one of my favorite posts! I love talking about names. For children, for characters. And, you know, maybe in a few years, characters name Avalluzzahh may not be so weird, because there are freakin' psychos naming their children everything nowadays.
From that list, my favorite name was Carolina Salgado. She's a homicide detective, you know, obviously with latino roots, and she's pretty kickass. She's also hot as hell 🙂 She works in New Mexico. Hey, don't ask me, ask her! 🙂
My favorite character names are the simplest ones. The normal, relatable ones. The one name I've loved the most in a book for a heroine was Meghan Anne Collins (she even came with a middle name), in Mary Higgins Clark's "I'll Be Seeing You". I loved it so much, for a while I wished I would marry a man named Collins so I could name my child that! I'm not even kidding.
As for my characters, I've NEVER made up a character's name. I've never looked up a name for a character. I've never went after it on a name book. My characters just come to me with their names. They tell it to me as I write. Once, it took me over a week to figure out a character's name as I saw a scene over and over in my head. I'd figured out her last name and her whole family's names before someone finally said hers. It seems crazy, I know, but it's like, I see scenes in my head, and my characters tell me their names. I have no trouble with that 🙂
Moist Von Lipwig is one of my favorite character names. Also Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, Stuart Little, Scarlett O'Hara, Jim Phelps . . . The names just *fit*. Though some of my favorite *characters* don't have names, like the Continental Op, and those fit, too.
My favorite real name is Armageddon Bumbershoot, who is buried in a small cemetery between Stanton, Kentucky and the Natural Bridge State Park. I look up a lot of interment records and county death records — probates, too — as part of my job, so my list of character names most comes from cemeteries and death records. And baby name books, too, if I have the perfect last name and need to pair it.
I never liked my name as a teenager — it reminded me of sunbonnets at a time when I wanted to be safety pins and purple hair dye — but I've come to terms with it. As for my face, I've broken it in nicely, like a comfortable pair of bowling shoes.
I took a name from the list and switched it around, if that's okay: Etienne Huggs.
Etienne lives in the apartment over his auntie's restaurant just off the Quarter (or did before Katrina, and Isaac's not looking friendly now they finally opened for the dinner crowd again — but his auntie won't think of moving somewhere high and dry so here he is, because she's a stubborn old woman, but she's *his* stubborn old woman and he owes her more than a month of sandbagging and gigging for surprised frogs in the pantry can pay). He does odd jobs, too, but not easy ones, because he might look like a simple man with more good will than brains, but that is not entirely true. No women troubles though — women don't trouble him at all. Don't ask me why; the caffeine just ran out.
But BooBoo Bigger is clearly the name of a strangely-colored, loved-into-lumps stuffed animal owned by a small child whose would-be kidnappers will face far worse than a security system, should they put hands on BooBoo Bigger's Boy. Yeah, going for that caffeine, now. . .
Favorite source for names: criminal court dockets.
Mix n' match:
And so on ….
Love the sports names. There is a tournament each March to decide the coolest name in the NCAAs, and this year NC State's walk-on, Staats Battle, won it (Go Pack). The names of the regions, after former players, are hysterical (like God Shamgod or Bak Bak).
As for fictional characters? Names like Rocky Balboa, Jack Reacher, and John Rambo all work really well. I also love baby names. My wife and I looked through traditional Celtic names (her heritage is Scttish and Irish, mine is Cornish and Welsh) in the event we have boys. We're keeping the winners, but names like Brannoc, Angus, Merryn, Hamish, and Connor were all under consideration. Love names.
As for my characters, I try to choose something I want that character to represent for me, then I name them based on that. In my first manuscript, my detective was perseverant almost to a fault, so I named him Daniel (after Daniel 'Rudy' Ruettiger). Even if no reader ever gets that connection, I know it's there. Same with my new protag, Max Quarry. He's an ex-fighter who's anger issues cause him a lot of trouble (Max = short, harsh-sounding and represents "takes things to extremes", Quarry = solid as a rock physically). I have no idea if they're "good" names or not, but they fit the characters exactly.
Great post, David, as usual. You hit on my all-time favorite character name: Rooster Cogburn. Other favorites included Al Swearengen from Deadwood (a real-life name also used on the show), Mr. Eko and Hugo "Hurley" Reyes from Lost, and Han Solo from Star Wars.
Some additional name sources:
First Names: http://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/ (can search by decade)
I had a feeling this topic would generate an interesting discussion.
Barbie: You're truly lucky if your character names just come to you. I have to go searching most of the time, try on various candidates see if they "fit." Meghan Ann Collins is a great, solid name, but I'm glad you didn't go out and marry a Collins just for that opportunity.
Sarah: Moist Von Lipwig. Armageddon Bumbershhot. BooBoo Bigger. You made my day. I like Etienne Huggs as a name, and it works for all the reasons you made clear. It seems to invite characterization. Christ, it almost dares you NOT to invent a character with the name.
And of course he'd be from Louisiana. That's one other trick. If I use sports rosters for names, I'm careful to pick a team from the region I'm talking about: LSU for example, or Texas, North Carolina. You want Polish names, check out a midwest school, like Penn State or Ohio State or Notre Dame.
Dusty: Great link, thanks. Yeah, court dockets are great for names and if you're looking for faces as inspiration, Chicago Muni court has a slide show of recent arrests that's priceless. Lensford Caddell and Cotton Dunagin. Again, they almost dare you: Come on. Write me.
Jake: I remember God Shamgod. I'd forgotten about Staats Battle. Both great, as is Max Quarry — not much doubt he's not a CPA. And I absolutely agree, the name has to first and foremost stand for something for you. That will come across in everything you write about him, as though he defines or stands at a certain place in your imagination where various avenues of thought, feeling and memory intersect.
Erik: You know, until you wrote it out, I didn't get the pun in Swearengen's name. Sheesh,
Those are great links, thanks, especially since they list the names by date. Mucho useful, that trick.
Terrific post, David!
Check out the names in movie credits–some real winners.
As for your question, have you grown into your name–well, I'm working on it.
Twist: Don't work too hard. You might hurt something.
(BTW: You do know what "working a twist" means, right?)
Yes, yesterday's conversation was indeed intense. 🙂 But I relish how open everyone is around the virtual here.
I used to browse phone books back in the day…In truth, I don't know how I come up with names…Right now I've got this character in my head, Maggie, but I can't see her yet. I don't have her "hook," so to speak. It could be that the name is problem, but maybe not. Sometimes it's hard to tell.
Love the sports names! How about Fabby Riddles? Shindo Tenpenney? Mingo Swin?
Lisa: Love those three names, especially Shindo Tenpenney. As for Maggie, try giving her a different name and see what happens.
Intense? *blinks innocently* Why, whatever do you mean?
Thank you SO MUCH for this post and the links, David. I suck at names and have bookmarked this for future reference. A friend read the first chapters of an early draft of mine and was confused about whether two characters were related. I said no, why do you ask? I'd given them both the same last name without even realizing it: Johnson. Talk about boring. Part of my Minnesota upbringing.
For the current ms, I googled Cuban baseball players and got a complete listing. I wanted to be sure I picked a name that was authentic, but I also didn't want to accidentally use someone's real name.
It makes me crazy when writers give characters names that look the same on the page. Like Kevin and Keith. All I see is five-letter name starting with K. I read a book where two characters were named Olivia and Vivienne. Which would have been fine, except they were referred to by their nicknames: Liv and Vivi. Damned if I could keep them straight.
KD: You're more than welcome for the links, and be sure to save Dusty's and Erik's as well. And don't kick yourself over names, they're trickier than a lot of people think.
And I'll bet Minnesota has more than its share of Johnsons and Petersons and Hansens and Andersens and …
KD: As for similar names — yeah, it can really cause you to lose your bearings in a book. I always make a list of all the names I use as I'm writing, so I can check for that. Even if the names don't show up close together, it can confuse the reader.
You had fun with the title for this piece, didn't you? 🙂
Funny but when I began my MS I gave my character a name and kept writing. When I went to use it again, I typed something completely different as though she said, THIS is my name. Turns out the other name was her sister, and nearly all the characters supplied their own names! The only one who didn't was one that once assigned, I had to look up on the net and found that he was a big actor in the 70's. I kept a diminutive of the first name and borrowed the last from a family friend. The last, morphed through the writing forcing me to use find and replace!
Do you find that it becomes more difficult as you write more novels to choose different names? Do you keep a names already used file? Do you think it matters when it's not a series that you're writing?
Dude, you just made me feel completely uncreative. I don't think I'll ever reach for the baby-naming book again. I'll just have your blog bookmarked on my computer and click on each of the links you've supplied.
Ah, a post I can really sink my teeth into. The names a writer gives his characters in a book can play a huge part in my enjoyment of it. A great name both fits a character perfectly and rolls off the tongue; it doesn't jar or just lay there flat. Get too clever and it pulls you right out of the story. I have a writer friend who's never met a character who could simply be named "Harry Gray." It always has to "Hardy Glaystone," or "Hercules Greggson." Yuchhh.
I once read a book that was awful — just AWFUL — on a lot of levels, but the names this author gave her characters were so bad, every time my eyes fell upon one I wanted to gag. Originality in character names is good; verisimilitude is better.
Gordon: Honestly, that was the name when I first put it up before the whole sock puppet thing blew up. I just tweaked the piece when it became clear the title would have more nuance than I'd expected.
Debbie: The bigger problem is when you end up writing essentially the same character, just with a different name. Then you really have some work to do. I don't keep a names used folder, but I think it's a great idea. Maybe I'll start. I'd say repeating names, unless it's the same character of course, is always problematic. Readers may confuse the one character with the other.
Stephen: Nothing wrong with baby books. But they do tend to minimize the Barkevious and Konockus opportunities.
Gar: yes, a little originality goes a long way in character names. And yet I know you love CLOCKERS — Rocco Klein is close to the edge, don't you think?
David, I didn't go marrying a Collins because I live in Brazil, and it isn't exactly a last name you'd find around here 🙁 And you go around thinking the best of me!
Hi David, Just wandered in from a friend's link. Thanks for all the unusual sources for names. With the Olympics still in mind, that would be a great source for names from other countries. I love finding names in the credits of television shows, especially the British imports. My favourite character name is Weezie Foley in Savannah Blues by Mary Kay Andrews. Gotta love those Southern names.
Dear Joan: Thanks for wandering in. What friend's site provided the magic door?
You're too right, the south has names that just won't work anywhere else. Weezie Foley's a stellar name.
I wonder why athletes have such predictably interesting names. I mean, come on, Lance Armstrong. Use it for a character and watch the eyes roll. And yet it suited him too perfectly.
There's a whimsical almost mystical side to this I find fascinating.
David, to answer your question: My friend posted a link to a writers' group I belong to. Haven't a clue where she found you, but she always come up with classy stuff.
David: I wouldn't have had the guts to name a character Rocco Klein, but then, I'm not Richard Price.