Do characters make the names? Or do names make the characters?

by Jeannie Watt, author of the upcoming Harlequin Superromance Maddie Inherits a Cowboy (February 2011)

I love names. I name everything that crosses my path, from Bert, my dieffenbachia, to Skippy, the lizard that lives in my garage. My mother once told me that the reason I pursued writing was so I could name the characters.  She was oh, so right. But just because I love to name things, doesn’t mean it’s easy. When a name is wrong, it’s wrong, and when it’s right, everything about the character seems to fall into place.

This point was recently driven home when I was writing my April 2010 Superromance, Always a Temp. I cleverly named the three brothers Ethan, Nathan and Evan because, as a teacher, I frequently see trends in sibling names. Parents fall in love with a certain letter or sound and make it the signature for their family—which might be why my family has a Jamie, Jake, Jeannie and a dog named Juni.

What might be kind of cool for a family, though, can be downright confusing to a reader. (Can you imagine my family in a book? “Now who was Juni again?”) After a nudge from my editor, I changed the brothers’ names to Seth, Nathan and Garrett, and an interesting thing happened. The personalities of the brothers changed as I wrote them. Seth did things that he wouldn’t have done when he was called Ethan. Garrett became impatient and borderline cranky, whereas he’d been steadfast and just a tad boring as Evan. I began to see possibilities in both nonhero brothers that I hadn’t seen before—to the point that Seth became the hero of my free online read, Rescue Me, and Garrett’s story is forming in my head.

The moral of the story? When characters are flat or simply aren’t acting the way they should, change the name and rewrite the scenes. Sometimes the result can be gold.

Check out my website at www.jeanniewatt.com for information on all my books!

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Comments ( 10 )
  1. MarcieR
    November 2, 2010 at 8:12 am
    Reply

    I always ‘roll’ the character’s name around on my tongue a few times to see if it sounds ‘right’. Interesting how the personality falls into place when the name is the right name!

  2. PatriciaW
    November 2, 2010 at 9:08 am
    Reply

    I’ve had characters name midstream during a draft or during revisions. Sometimes it’s when I’m struggling with developing that character and the name I’ve chosen just doesn’t hit me squarely yet.

    I also have to be careful not to reuse my favorites over and over.

  3. MollyJean
    November 2, 2010 at 10:11 am
    Reply

    I love creating names. My friends and I will get together and brainstorm. Molly Jean is actually a character name that I absolutely adore. I love middle names just as much as first names, and even if it is never mentioned, all of my main characters have to have a middle name that flows well.

  4. Marie Jones
    November 2, 2010 at 10:51 am
    Reply

    Actually I get my inspiration from my moods. An example would be I’m feeling great and it’s a sunny day when I start too write I may use the name Sami (a twist on sunshine). If I’m thinking about my heritage I’ll use something like Luci or Anna. I go with what I’m feeling when I start a project and let it flow until it takes the shape and form that I’m aimimg for.

  5. Tweets that mention Do Characters make the names? Or do names make the chaaracters? #SYTYCW via -- Topsy.com
    November 2, 2010 at 11:07 am
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    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Dawn P, Meg Maguire. Meg Maguire said: RT @Dawnpeitersen: Do Characters make the names? Or do names make the chaaracters? #SYTYCW http://t.co/s4BV04Z via @HarlequinBooks […]

  6. Jeannie Watt
    November 2, 2010 at 11:25 am
    Reply

    Marcie–I’m a name-roller, too. Sometimes names pop into my head, like Kade Danning (hero of Cowboy Comes Back) but usually I work at the name and try it out in a few scenes–mental or on paper. Last names are often hardest for me.

    Patricia–I’ve changed names mid-manuscript, also. Thank goodness for the search feature. Oddly, it’s sometimes the minor characters who need their names changed. In my most recent manuscript, the skinny, easy-going chef named Buzz made one small appearance…until I renamed him Lowell. I thought Lowell was a better name for a skinny guy, but instead he became a strapping, irreverent Scot who loves to party. Go figure. I liked him so much he bacame a key character in the book.

    Molly Jean–Love the name! (The Jean part in particular–I’m so into J’s.) MIddle names are important. I’ve given a few in my day. It seems the more you know about a character the easier they are to write.

    Marie–What an interesting idea, taking character names from moods. It makes sense, too. A character named Sunny simply isn’t going to fit into a dark mood or a dark story, unless used as irony.

    Thanks for stopping by, ladies.

    Jeannie

  7. Rula Sinara
    November 2, 2010 at 11:40 am
    Reply

    Hey Jeannie,

    I definitely think that names are linked to certain personalities. When I pick character names, not only do I go for the sound, ‘feel’, personality connotation, and geographical region, I also like to check out its meaning and make sure it works for the character. Yes, kind of like picking baby names.

    BTW, you pick great names! Your dog’s name is very cute.

  8. Ellen Hartman
    November 2, 2010 at 12:03 pm
    Reply

    …And then there was the time I complained that the Ellen character in books and movies is always nice. “Ellen” is the best friend or the friendly cousin or the helpful neighbor. So Jeannie named her next villain Ellen!

    I loved it and so did my kids when I showed it to them!

    I started out working my way through the baby names my husband rejected. I was thrilled to get to use those oh-so-perfect names for someone!

  9. B. A. Binns
    November 2, 2010 at 2:02 pm
    Reply

    Names absolutly make a difference in my writing! I named one character Linda and she was the biggest wimp alive. Renamed her Barnetta (with EXACTLTY the same backstory) and she came alive as a true in-your-face heroine. Another time I named a character Neill. No problem there, until I discovered halfway through writing the book that his name means Cheif – and that ended up with me re-writing and enhancing many parts of the plot as he changed under my eyes. My characters names are as much a part of their story and personalities as their cars – but that’s another issue for another blog post.

  10. Jeannie Watt
    November 2, 2010 at 3:18 pm
    Reply

    Rula–That’s an interesting way of going about it–checking the meaning of the names. I have a book that analyzes the effect names have on various aspects of life, such as business, love life, etc, and I flip through that when I’m stuck, so maybe I do the same thing. I can’t remember the name of the book, but it’s a lot of fun. I never thought of naming by regional areas, but I bet we have a lot more Justos and Amaya’s here than a lot of other places do, since we have such a large Basque population. And I do try to incorporate Basque last names in my Nevada books. Great points.

    B.A.–I love that you went back and enhanced the character once you discovered the name meaning. That’s exactly what I was getting at in my blog post. Things we’re probably not even aware of–past relationships, TV shows, books we’ve read, etc–affect our perception of a name and the character with that name.

    Ellen–How could I not name a villain Ellen after you practically dared me to? Of course, I remember a sturdy rower named Jeannie in one of your books…The Boyfriend’s Back, I believe. I, too, am thrilled to be able to use all the baby names my husband shot down.

    Jeannie

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