Monday, February 14, 2011


What’s in a name? Baby, you have no idea! This is one of the pivotal decisions for me in setting up a series or a new book. Even a short story or a necessary fib. Oh, if only if it was easy. I swear that it took less time to settle on names for living breathing children than to find the right moniker for a character. Doesn’t matter if it’s the protagonist, the sidekick, the villain or an occasional walk-on part, names are a challenge. Seriously, even dogs and cats need the right name (Mrs. Parnell’s Calico Cat is the exception to this rule). Truffle and Sweet Marie, Charlotte Adams’ miniature dachshunds are named for a rich chocolatey treat and a Canadian chocolate bar. Appropriate.

Having said that, I collect names. I am scouring the news, the papers and idle conversations for the right sounding name to add to the list. If I’m staring at you, perhaps I’m thinking of stealing your middle name. Stranger things have happened.

Practically, though, my favourite tool is the all important baby name book. The thing is that the names have to fit the character’s age, gender, and temperament. There aren’t many seniors called Britannee or Taylor. The baby name book will have the most popular names for 1925, 1950, 1975 and so on. A good book has people of all ages and the right choice makes a big difference. Sure, I know that many people also get this information online, but I still like to feel the pages. No wonder I have a name from the distant past, that is now synonymous with a popular and illegal herbal ‘relaxant’.

But back to topic. Besides the baby book, I troll through the phone book, the obituaries and Google. Google’s great for answering the questions: Does a person with this name exist? Is she a lawyer/doctor/cop/victim like the character in my book? Will he or she sue me?

Then, the names have to work together with each other. Is there anything worse than having every character’s name start with A or E? Say: Alan aimed the gun at Aileen who took a dive behind Aaron nearly decapitating Alison who collapsed leaving Ashley to take the bullet. I mean really. Please don’t make it hard for people. Or what about those books where everyone’s name is two syllables, beginning and ending with a consonant? It won’t take long before the reader is flipping back to see which police officer is speaking now. Or the reader may opt to simply move to a book where the characters are easy to tell apart. Who can blame our readers for this?

In an ideal world, the character names will suit the personality, often in a comic way. Donald Westlake used to have a large, lumpy criminal type known only as Tiny.

The character names should be appropriate for the setting too. Using LA? Better have a Sanchez drop in now and then. Paris? Cherchez Pierre. Fiona Silk mousing around West Quebec meets Irish and French in equal measure. Benedicts are tripping over Marc-Andrés. In my Charlotte Adams stories, I favour Dutch and Irish names because there are lots of people with those names in that part of upstate New York. I do think all those ‘Vans’ add a touch of class. I have to watch myself because it’s easy to overdo it.

I keep a grid of first, middle and last names for all characters in each book. I toss in their birthdays just for good measure. I try not to use the same letter of the alphabet for two characters names (first or last) in any book and to vary the length of the names and the ethnic groups too. I grew up in a community where half the phone book read MacDonald, and another quarter McDonald. It was hard to tell people apart without extra information. I was forced in Little Boy Blues to call someone Donald Donnie MacDonald, to distinguish him from all the other Donald MacDonalds. Of course, in real life that wouldn’t be enough.

I work hard on this name task and people tell me that they find it easy to keep the characters straight in my books (and that is not just because I bought them a drink).

The protagonist is the most important, of course: An Inspector Banks mystery. An Inspector Green mystery. An Inspector Gamache mystery. I am suffering from Inspector envy. Doesn’t that inspector thing give a bit of gravitas to a guy or gal?

It’s also good to be memorable and just a wee bit different. Lisbeth Salander, anyone?

Now, over to you!

Mary Jane Maffini rides herd on three (soon to be three and a half) mystery series and a couple of dozen short stories. Her thirteenth mystery novel, The Busy Woman’s Guide to Murder (April 5, 2011), is brimming with names, no two the same.


  1. Warning note to so-called security letters: Stop messing with my friends' comments. I mean it!

  2. I, too, fuss over names. I think names are are vital to a character as gender, height and hair colour. Baby books, obits are great sources for me. And telephone books, if the story has a recognizable location/region.

    But here's my dilemma. Do you use a common, popular-to-the-generation name or --- as research has shown --- a strange name that the person has to live up to, put up with or overrcome? I suppose that decision is all part of creating your character and his/her back story.

    And what about 'work' names (usually surnames) and nicknames and pet names? Can you reveal character and the way others perceive and interact with your character if you put all these variants to work? Or do you just succeed in confusing your reader?

    I'd like to hear what others have to say about character name variants, please.

  3. I'm with you, Mary Jane. I (when able) like to start with characters' names and build the plot around them.

    Susan -- lots to think about. I think the main thing is not to confuse the reader, especially if you're using nicknames.

  4. Thanks, Erika. Great questions, Susan. I think we have to be careful not to call a person by too many variants, esp early on. It bothers me when I am reading a new series, but less so later on. Not much help, but I'm sticking to it!


  5. I find I remember strange names longer, especially when it fits the characters.