Thursday, January 29, 2015

What’s In A Name?

by Susan Israel

As a writer of fiction, I make up a lot of ‘imaginary friends’ and quite a few villains. I find myself wishing they were real more often than not- not the villains, of course- and hope that my readers will feel my main characters, the “good guys,” remind them of people they know or want to know. So when it comes to naming them,  I try not to get too exotic, unless it’s warranted.  I avoid names of anyone I’ve ever known, though there are several names of people I’ve known in the past that I’d love to use. Sometimes I draw a blank. A literal blank, like this: _________. The progress of what I’m working on takes precedence. But then pages dotted with blanks become disconcerting. I use the times when I hit a snag and am waiting for some research questions to be answered to go back and fill in the blanks. Some of them, anyway.  By then, I’ve compiled some possible names and play matchy matchy.  And quite often those names get switched around.  If authors changed their children’s names as often as they change their character’s names, those kids would have serious identity issues. 

I used to get some names from municipal white pages. I wrote columns and columns of them in a composition book. White pages are harder if not impossible to come by now. When I asked for a particular one at a reference desk, I was told to use online white pages. How do you find a name online if you don’t know the name you’re looking for until you see it? My back-up became names on magazine mastheads. Names on mailboxes in apartment lobbies when I was visiting somebody else. Names generated by an iPhone app even. And then I googled the names, to at least verify that no such person exists or at least bore no resemblance to the characters in my story.  I wrote down the first name of a  murder victim I read about in the paper years ago to be used later and I immediately changed the surname of a minor character after someone with the same surname committed a notorious crime. I can say with conviction that any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.  But I’ve had dreams about my characters; that’s imagination in overdrive.
Susan Israel's fiction has previously been published in Hawai'i Review, Other Voices and Vignette, and she has written for magazines and newspapers, including Glamour, Girls Life, Ladies Home Journal and The Washington Post. A graduate of Yale College, she lives in Connecticut with her beloved dog. You may contact her at   
Delilah is accustomed to people seeing her naked. As a nude model - a gig that keeps food on the table while her career as a sculptor takes off- it comes with the territory. But Delilah has never before felt this vulnerable. Because Delilah has an admirer. Someone who is paying a great deal of attention to her. And he just might love her to death.



Amy Parker said...

I really enjoyed reading about the care you take in naming your characters. Thanks for sharing. It's always nice to know that I have methods in common with other authors!

Unknown said...

Very interesting! Names are important and from the onset can give clues to a character's nature. An author needs to be aware of this when naming, and it appears you do your due diligence.

Jenny Milchman said...

I'm always interested by other writers' processes for specifics--especially when they're given so much thought. Thanks for sharing!

ChiTrader said...

I've used random name generators to accumulate a list of names that are distinctive without being too unusual, hard to pronounce, or cumbersome to type. Then I match my nameless character to the name that seems to fit best at that time.

Invariably I end up tweaking 3 or 4 characters' names before getting comfortable with the final name.


Susan C. Philpott said...

Interesting read. Neat to see how others name their characters. I use the online baby name websites - and I often try to get the meaning of the name to snyc up with my character' think naming characters is one of the more enjoyable tasks when starting a fresh story

Susan Israel said...

I miss those old phone books! I still need to fill in some of the blanks in my second novel as I near completion.