Choosing a Name in Time and Place

nameAuthors get asked all the time how they come up with a character’s name.

It’s a mystery.

Sometimes it’s obvious: General John J. Pershing, President Abraham Lincoln, Pancho Villa.

But more often than not, it’s selective and outside of the author’s control.

Just like your friends and relatives, a person’s name is who they are–no matter what they’re called–and you love their name because it’s wedded to the personality. Click to Tweet

(This is a particularly good fact to remind people disturbed by names chosen by relatives–particularly for grandchildren–they may not appreciate at first)

Last year while praying about a particular book, I got a flash of the first chapter. I set to work immediately and this is what I typed:

“Take this down,” Jock said.


What kind of a name is that?

You tell me.

I don’t even like it.

I played around with it–surely his name could be Jack. I like the name Jack.

But it didn’t work. He sprang into my mind full blown as Jock.

And that’s who he is.

A perfectly suitable name for a character out of 1914 Boston, it wouldn’t have worked in 1836 Texas–which, of course, is why I named my hero in The Dogtrot Christmas Luis Vasco de Carvajal

(That name also seemed to come out of nowhere. I later discovered Luis shared his last name with the family of the wife of my first cousin once-removed–who live in Columbia).

While writing my novella The Yuletide Bride, I knew I wanted bagpipes to figure in the story and thus I needed Scottish names for some of my characters.

The hero was Ewan.

His last name?

I discarded MacGregor, and tried to think of other names. I landed on Murray–for a friend who calls herself MacMurray in some circles.

The other Scots were MacDougalls–undoubtedly from The Three Lives of Thomasina movie I watched as a child.

Who knows why that lodged in my psyche?

While writing the sequel, The Sunbonnet Bride, I had to introduce other characters, not necessarily

Because you sometimes pick names out of the ether and don’t think too hard, when you write a sequel you’re stuck.

So Sally (a pioneer-type name which works well in 1874 Nebraska) Martin is the heroine of the second novella. Her sister needed a name.

I ran a little contest on Facebook while hunting for information about square dancing and promised to name Sally’s sister after the winner.

Kathleen is a fine name, but it didn’t seem right for the prairie.

So I played with it: Kathy? No

My friend sometimes calls herself Kathleena, how about Lena?

I’d just read a novel by Willa Cather who wrote about the Nebraska land about the same time. Lena was the name of one of her characters. Perfect.

Sally’s sister is Lena.

In writing a novel, you try to use the specific, not the generic in order to make the story more realistic. Click to Tweet

If a character is only used in passing–say, the parlor maid–there’s no need to give them a name unless they appear frequently.

However, if someone is referring to another person, it makes sense to me to use their name–you might say, “your teacher says to pick up your homework.” But it would be more realistic for one student speaking to another to say, “Mrs. Jenkins wants you to pick up your homework.”

So, in The Sunbonnet Bride, Malcolm asks his father if he has any hauling work he needs to do.

His father answers:

“A small load when you can get to it out at Brush Creek. Matthew Boden said you should concentrate on those that need help first but he’d like the goods by the end of the week.”

I saw Matt today and told him I’d borrowed his name for my story. My brain was tired and I picked the first name that came to mind.

He was suspicious at first, but I assured him the notoriety he received would be minimal (Please do not look him up–you won’t find anything, anyway).

He smiled, pleased, as I knew he would but had a question, “What about Shirley?”

“I’m sorry. Shirley is a modern name. I needed one that would work 140 years ago.”

He laughed.

It’s a small point, but I think having a name makes the story more realistic.

Sometimes you can go overboard with names, and even steal them from your relatives. Click to Tweet

The reverend’s daughter in The Sunbonnet Bride wins a little pig in the livestock auction. She’s thrilled.

So am I.

I tossed that little pig in after viewing my niece’s Instagram account.

She’s been posting photos of her pet pig. (See above photo)

The reverend’s daughter names the piggy.


Sleeping Hamlet

I stole the pig’s name, too: Hamlet.

Other sources to check whether a name is a good choice for a time or place:

How liberal/conservative is your name?

Historic Name Generator


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