I keep a baby name book by my desk.
When I’m writing a story or novel, I have to have a name for my character first before I can proceed any further. At least the first name. Last names can come later.
I believe names have to sound like the character’s personality.
For my first book, my main character Francesca went through several variations of nicknames before I landed on the final one. Fanny, Fran, Chesca, Chessy, and finally, Frenzy. She’s a hot mess: she’s not a train wreck mind you, just artistic and out spoken with abandon. She’s the cool aunt who lets her niece run barefoot and muddy through the wood-floored house, who stabs her art easel with a palette knife when she angry. She had been the bad girl who’d been arrested in high school—by her father, the local Lieutenant, no less—for breaking into an abandoned Ice Packing Plant and smoking pot with other school rebels and the boy her father had forbidden her to date. Frenzy’s no innocent, so she couldn’t have an innocent sounding name. Frenzy made her sound like the “crazy artistic psychic” she is. Francesca, however, is a strong sounding name with a tone of authority and class to it, and Francesca can display this authority and sophisticated personality when she needs to, so that’s when I use Francesca instead of Frenzy.
That’s also when Jack, the hero of my book, uses her full name: when he needs to be firm and distant with her. Jack is short for Jackson. He’s my tough detective. Jack’s been through a lot. At sixteen, his twin sister died in a car accident. Later, while on the Homicide Unit in Los Angeles, his fiancé (and partner) had been killed by the very serial killer they’d been hunting. Jack is a strong name. I didn’t name him after 24’s Jack Bauer or Jack from Without a Trace or Jack from Alias or Jack from Eureka or even Jack from Law & Order… (and he’s certainly not named after Jack-in-the-Box) but you get my point right? Jack is a leading man name. Even one of my Twitter friends has named a character Jack. A girl in my former novel class changed her character from Jason to Jack because, as she said, “Jack sounds stronger.” While Jack may be stronger, Jackson hints at my hero’s background: he grew in San Francisco’s wealthy upper class, so to speak. His father is a high-powered attorney and his mother a budding socialite with ties to galas and charity functions all over the city; his grandfather was in the lumber industry. Jackson and Lily (his twin sister) grew up in relative ease. No jobs. Everything was pretty much handed to them.
So, as you can see, a name goes with personality.
Names are as important for the main character as well as for the rest of family. They must sound right. Jackson and Lily flow together. And even though I only spend a little bit of time on Lily, I needed her name to sound right with Jack’s. For the longest time Francesca’s oldest sister was named Amanda. Now two names ending with an A is a bit much for fiction even though some families do name their children that way (and some even alliterate, all children names starting with As or Ms). But when I changed Amanda to Caitlyn, everything clicked into place. They also have a younger sister Abigail. All three flow together.
One more small thing (amongst so many) about names: history.
One of the other main characters is Gianni. His father is Puerto Rican (but also missing from the picture) and his mother is Italian. She is deeply rooted in tradition. She named him Gianni, the Italian form of John. Gianni, as you guessed, speaks Italian. He also speaks Spanish fluently. And throughout the book I’ve peppered his constant cursing in the languages; he sometime switches beautifully between the two. I have various other characters including a Linda, Dillon, Claire, Miles, and Elizabeth.
What kind of character names do you have? Which names are outdated? Overrated? What do you think of “modern” names (you know, the ones with trendy spellings for normal names—like Kaitelinne for Caitlyn or Cade for Katie)? Do you believe trendy names date your book?