What’s In a Name?

What’s In a Name?

By Cait Collins


Do you love your name? Does it fit your personality? My given name, Barbara, comes from the Latin meaning stranger or foreigner. Some books use the term barbarian. Stranger, maybe. I’m shy and tend to make friends slowly. However, barbarian indicates wild and untamed. Definitely not me. I am asked why I took Cait for a pen name. Simple. The name is Irish meaning pure. My mother’s family is Irish. The meaning of the name fits me. Pure in heart, pure mind, you get the idea. It’s me. So, did my parents make a mistake with my name? No. They liked Barbara Ann, it was popular in the 1950’s, and they chose it for me. I doubt they knew the meaning of Barbara. But even if they did know, it would not have changed their choice.

Prospective parents place great importance on selecting a name for the baby. They make lists, consider religious or cultural significances, think about inherited names, and popularity before selecting a name for their newborn. If moms and dads make name lists and whittle down the choices to find that perfect name, shouldn’t a writer put equal thought into naming his characters? After all, the author is like a parent giving life to the characters and the work.

Authors have varying methods for selecting a character’s name. Sometimes it just comes to you. For example, I have a character named Macon Georgia. That name had no rhyme or reason until an inebriated Macon explained. “My daddy didn’t have much imagination when it came to naming his children. I was born in Macon, Georgia. I have a baby brother named Mobile Alabama.” I also used Houston and Austin for brothers in an early novel. The heroine quipped, “Don’t tell me. You have another brother named Dallas.” “Actually,” Houston stated, “Dallas is my sister.” I don’t try to analyze name inspiration like this. If the character is shouting “I am…” who am I to argue? Sometimes the fictional entity just might know best.

More research may be required when writing a period piece. What names were common to the time period? Were there regional variations or spellings of the proposed name? Was the name used at the time in question? There are good books to help with name research. I use THE VERY BEST BABY NAME BOOK in the whole wide world by Bruce Lansky for some of my research. The book contains little known facts, stereotypes, positive and negative perceptions of names for both boys and girls, popular names for different countries, gender neutrals, and name selection worksheets. It defines the country of origin and the meaning. Unfortunately, the historical age is not provided. That’s where search engines come into play. Do not neglect this step. A name not associated with the times or the setting could destroy chances for publication.

Even minor characters need to be named. If he is known only as Joe’s friend, one could assume the person has no real value to the story. He’s just thrown in to fill space from point A to point B in the scene. Even if he makes only one appearance in the work, give some consideration in choosing the name. If he’s gentle, compassionate, and concerned, Luke might be a better choice than Bubba.

So what is in a name? The rose’s fragrance may be sweet, but if we call it gardenia, that’s a whole different scent. Names help define characteristics, explain why a character behaves in a certain way. A character might fail if he cannot live up to granddad’s name. Choosing names for characters is an important step in developing the story. A boy named Sue just might be the spice that flavors the novel.

2 thoughts on “What’s In a Name?

  1. An excellent comment Cait. Names are as important in a novel as they are in real life and like most parents my wife and I took great care in chosing our daughters names. In my books I give similar consideration though this time wanting the name to suit the character I have imagined. A fisherman who smuggles guns on the side I called Stavos, an ordinary family man come hero I named Ian then, as he changed by the third book into a government agent, I use his surname, Vaughan.
    It is a subtle thing that I think is important.

  2. Great post! For me sometimes the name comes first and then the personality develops. The difficult process is when the personality is so vivid in my mind but I can’t find a name that suits. Even harder still is finding animal names. Since I write mostly historical fiction, finding horse names that reflect their quirks and personality is a daunting task. I spend countless hours making name lists for animals.

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