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Writing Life: Names into Being

Names are always the hardest part of a story for me. A name is a label for a being, and the wrong name can doom a character. I always feel apprehensive when my pen is hovering over a character, waiting to be granted a name. I’ve spent so much energy on a character name for my latest story. Here’s a little more on my thought process for coming up with a good name.

I started with the name of someone I knew. The character was vaguely based on someone I’d once known, and though I was taking everything in a totally different direction, this was a good enough starting point. So my first drafts just had the name scrawled in there as a filler. Eventually, I started writing _____ wherever her name fit.

But you can’t write a story full of ____s. A name is more than a fill-in-the-blank question. So I enlisted my wife to help. We had several brainstorming conversations. In the car, lying in bed at night, eating breakfast in the morning — I turned this question over and over in my head: what to call the character? I knew I wanted a southern name, something a little off kilter and unexpected, perhaps.

Finally, I resorted to a baby name book, which didn’t get me much further. Baby name books can be a great way to find names, but I needed something I could fine-tune a little more. So I checked out Facebook. I found a friend from middle school in Georgia with over a thousand friends. Perfect. Based on what you know about your friends, you can check out their friends to drill down by region, nationality, and other features. Just get ready to look at a bunch of profile pictures and names.

When  I think of a name, I have a vague sense in my head of what the character should be like. An essence, if you like. So I throw various names against that essence and see if they stick or not. Many do. I know for this character, I had several options: Cara, Landry, Maggie, and Laney were all possibilities at various points. I nearly settled on Landry, but it unfortunately failed my next barrage of tests.

Whenever a name hit the shortlist, I always subjected it to another barrage of testing. From the draft I’ve written so far, I picked out several impact sentences. These are sentences from the story that really capture the character’s being, or come at important points in the story. Here are a few I picked out:

(See how hard it is to write with blanks in a story?) Impact sentences are places in the story where the name must work. Without the right name in these places, there’s no way the essence of the character will shine through as I’m hoping. Granted, I’m only a little way into the draft, so these aren’t the best sentences, but the basic idea is there.


Finally, without Facebook or a baby name book, I found the right name: Jess. Jessica. It ticks all the boxes; more importantly, it fits the character that’s grown out it the story. It’s kind of like naming a child, and I feel good about this one. Jessica already is more vivid because of the process that I’ve gone through to get her name. A good name give your character wings and subtly reinforces all the little things you want your audience to remember them by. Don’t doom your story with throwaway, hastily-chosen names. Take your time and get it right. AFter all, after “the” and “and,” your characters’ names may very well be the most common words in your story.