What’s In A Name?

I’m at work on my second novel and for the last month or so I’ve been slowly naming the characters. It sounds easy. Just pick names out of a hat or something. That doesn’t work for me. As a novelist, I want names that fit the characters just right. I actually keep a list of names I hear or read on the internet or in a book or newspaper that I think will be good names for characters. I used some of those names for characters for my second novel.

This is what I look for in a name: for the main characters, the name has to be real but be slightly distinctive. I also draw up their full names and their nicknames and who they were named after. There are several reasons I am so careful with names. First, I don’t want them to sound made up, even though they are. Second, a name usually says something about a person. Sometimes I don’t worry about that but occasionally for supporting characters the only tool I have at hand is to define that character by giving them just the right name. Third, it has to be a name I like. I have to live with the character and the story. I remember reading the novel Atlas Shrugged when I was in college. One of the villainous characters was named “Cuffy Meigs.” Who could like a character with that name? No one. So a name can define a character.

Sometimes I read something that triggers a name. I was reading a book the other day about a convoy escort that was in a battle with a number of German aircraft. When it was all over the men were exhausted, some were dead. In one of the turrets, one of the youngest sailors was crying. His best mate or “winger” had just been killed. Winger, I thought. Now that would make a good name. And one of the characters in my second novel is named “Winger.”

Sometimes characters in a novel have a walk-on part just like characters in a movie. They only appear once but I have to give them a name and it has to be just so. I don’t understand how the creative part of me works and why I pick one name over another. It’s just a feeling. Two days ago I was halfway through the redraft of Chapter One and I added a girlfriend for one of the minor characters for a specific reason. But she needed a name. And, as I mentioned earlier in the post, it can’t sound made up, even though it is.

I googled the most common names for girls in the US: these are the 15 most common names for girls born in 2010 as of May 2010 provided by the Social Security Administration. For some reason, I liked number 4, Madison. It stands out but it stood out just a little too much. If one is named ‘Madison,’ I can only imagine one’s friends must call you ‘Maddy’ and so ‘Maddy’ she became.

The fifteen most common names for girls in the US as of May 2010:

  1. Emma
  2. Isabella
  3. Emily
  4. Madison
  5. Ava
  6. Olivia
  7. Sophia
  8. Abigail
  9. Elizabeth
  10. Chloe
  11. Samantha
  12. Addison
  13. Natalie
  14. Mia
  15. Alexis

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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