Naming characters is one of my favorite things to do when I’m starting a new book. It can also be a really difficult process, though, and I have author friends who get stuck in this phase and throw their hands up in frustration. I’ve been working on honing my naming skills over the past eleven years and thought I’d share some of my techniques!
The most important thing is that the name works for you. It has to wash with the character in your head, or it just doesn’t click. A closely related tip is that the name has to work for the character. Sometimes the name makes the character, and sometimes the character makes the name. Usually, I try to choose names that really suit the person, kind of like you would do if you were naming a pet. An example of this is Shannon’s cousin, Marie, from the Torn Asunder Series. The name just always suited her, so that was easy. An example of the character making the name would be if you had a really bold girl but decided to give her a soft, feminine name, just for the contrast. I’ve seen this work really well.
Using an obviously unsuited name can also work if you want to try out an unusual moniker. I’ve had characters in the past that I’ve done this for, and I think, “Wow, you really pulled that off!” On the flip side, not every name is made for every character. For instance, my historical male lead, John Thomas, was originally Cameron. This is a bit of a modern name, but I knew I could get away with it because it is a surname, and a lot of people gave their sons family surnames back in the day. However, the name didn’t fit him. It was as though the name tried to make him something he wasn’t. His character even started to change a little from the way I had imagined it in my head. This is the power of naming.
You can also see by my experience with the John Thomas/Cameron debacle that naming can help you get to know your characters when their personalities are still fresh and undeveloped in your head. Through that process, I was able to learn that John Thomas was a little quieter and kinder than I had begun to draw him. The character begins to revolt against the wrong name, and it’s a really helpful tool to keep in your back pocket.
So how did I arrive at John Thomas? It’s hard to remember precisely after so many character names, but I’m pretty sure that John Thomas’s name was inspired by Stonewall Jackson’s. A lot of people don’t know that the famous General was actually Thomas Jonathan Jackson. I always thought the name had a rather nice ring to it. So I kind of flipped it and brushed it up for my character. Why the use of two names? People did this during the Civil War Era. Also, I could never think of one name that fully encapsulated his character.
A name is also a good opportunity to show that you’ve done your historical homework. You probably don’t want a Kayla in 1860. But it’s not always easy to think of good historical names or to know what names were common to your particular era. The best place to start is to pull up census records for the era you want to use. A lot of census records list ages, so you need to look for someone who would have been born in the same decade as your character. There is also a great website that compiles censuses by birth year and lists the most popular names of each decade. It can be found here:
I use that site all the time. Remember, if you’re writing a twenty-year-old character in 1850, you need to go back to 1830. Only think how much naming trends change in twenty years in the modern world! They didn’t change as much, historically speaking, but you can definitely see certain fashion trends as you scroll through censuses. Another tip is to study real people from your era and look at what their children, their sisters, their uncles, etc. were named.
My books also include enslaved characters. For their names, the process is a little different. The censuses also included and counted the enslaved since slave states got a boost in representation in Congress based off the number of slaves held. Obviously, then, you can find historically accurate names for the enslaved from censuses. But you have to find a census from a slave state, and I have often found that historical records from Southern states are a little spottier and more difficult to locate for various reasons. Another good option is to get onto the websites of house museums where there was once an enslaved population. Museums will often do highlights on particular enslaved people or families. The one tough thing about that is that house museums tend to focus on a particular era. For instance, Virginia plantations most all tend to spotlight the Revolutionary Era. So, another thing you can do is read biographies or diaries of slaveowners. Typically, the names of the enslaved will come up. If you have a really hard time tracking down slave records, you can just fall back on the names from the general census from the appropriate era. The names didn’t tend to be too different. For instance, Thomas Jefferson’s rolls list an enslaved woman named Patsy at Monticello, and his daughter was also Patsy.
Okay, so let’s wrap up the conversation on first names with some of my choices from the Torn Asunder Series. Shannon was originally Mary until it struck me that “Shannon” really suited her. Therefore, she became Mary Shannon and is called “Shannon.” Historically, a lot of people gave even their girls family surnames as middle names, so I thought I could get away with that. Frederick’s name just always suited him. “Adeline” (my modern female lead) fit her. It was kind of sweet, kind of quirky, kind of old. Adrian (my modern male lead) kept trying to be “Aidan,” which would have worked for him, but I kept forcing him to be “Adrian” for reasons I can’t now remember!
Now, let’s talk surnames.
I think the most important thing in surnames is remembering that you’re dealing with people who have a family history. I recently read a book that featured a historical character from Tennessee, and he had a last name that was distinctly of Germanic origin. My initial reaction was, “No, he’s not from Tennessee.” As I sat and wondered why that had thought popped in my head, it hit me that there just weren’t a lot of people of Germanic origins in Tennessee in the era the author had chosen. There were a few, though, and people can obviously move from their original state. I kept waiting for the book to explain the character’s family history, but it never did, and that was when it hit me. I googled the author’s state, and most of the people there are of Germanic origins. Bingo. It was just an oversight or an assumption, which could happen to any of us. There’s just so much to get right when you’re writing, and it’s impossible to cover it all.
The best thing to do is look at immigration patterns. For historical fiction, unless you’re doing it to make a certain point, it’s best not to stray too much from the area’s human ecology because you run the risk of straying from accuracy in naming. For instance, if you’re writing a book set in New Orleans, it’s best to use mostly French surnames, toss in a few Spanish, and add a dash of English. In Tennessee, immigration patterns show the bulk of the population was from England, Scotland, and Ireland. Always, there will be surnames that stray from the norm, and by all means, it’s great to show those. But do it with intention.
I would just like to make a note here that research should also be done if you have characters who were formerly or currently enslaved. You have a lot of options, including the following: having no surname while enslaved, having a family surname even while enslaved (if permitted), keeping an original African name, taking on an African surname after freedom, taking on a name that meant something special to the individual like “Freeman” or “Ransom,” and taking on the former owner’s surname. You can see the potential for so many wonderful stories and choices. To explore those stories through naming is a particularly profound opportunity.
Also, if your historical story includes a Native American character, similarly there needs to be some research on various naming methods. Sometimes Native Americans would choose to take on a European name either because they were fathered by a European American or as a measure of assimilation. Sometimes Native Americans would choose to keep traditional names.
Obviously, for modern storylines, some of this goes out the window because we live in a much more mobile and diverse society. But I still think it can’t hurt to do a little research. Even your modern characters have a family story, and I think their backgrounds ring truest when you take a little time to research what that story might have been.
As for my surname choices? Charleston has a strong French Huguenot history, and Ravenel is a French Huguenot name I heard again and again on a nerdy historian’s tour of Charleston. So I plucked it right from history. My historical male lead is from New England. Obviously, there were a lot of people of English descent in Massachusetts in the nineteenth century, so I pulled a list of English surnames. “Haley” appealed to me because of Alex Haley’s powerful connection with the history of slavery in light of John Thomas’s abolitionist roots. So names can also be symbolic or literary while still being historically accurate! My modern male lead is also a Ravenel due to his family connection back to the historical portion of the series. My modern female lead is a Miller. A girl-next-door name, no?
How do you choose your character names? Any good tips? If you’re not a writer, how did you name your kids or pets?