The Name Game: What Do YOUR Characters Want to Be Called by Beth Daniels

Name your characters like you’d name your child…wisely!

Ever meet someone who, upon hearing their name, you wonder what in the heck could their parents have been thinking to lumber them with something that will be difficult to pronounce or guaranteed to be turned into an insult or taunt by the kids they go to school with?

My French-American grandmother Agnes loved the name Hortense. Unfortunately, there were folks who snickered and joked, “is that whore tense?” behind the back of someone so named. Fortunately for my aunt, her mother went with Marjorie in naming her. Still, it’s something to keep in mind when naming children.

And in naming characters.

I have a writer friend who once sent me the start of a contemporary romance she was working on, looking for comments. My first comment was “you can’t have a hero answering to the name Gus.” To me, Gus was a sidekick name. Someone from the hero’s work place, the bartender at his favorite watering hole, a guy he went to school with, a member of his bowling team. It was not a name for a hero.

Now you might be married to a Gus, have a brother or favorite cousin named Gus, BUT, when naming characters – particularly MAIN characters – it’s important to consider how readers will react to a name.


Consider the era you are writing in when naming your hero.

When it comes to romantic heroes, the era also comes into play. In historicals names can be biblical, sound like surnames, or be related to the rung in society the hero is a part of.

I’ve read many stories set in the Regency period where heroes answer to Rafe (short for Raphael) or something from the ancient world, like Maximilian. One of my favorite Regency mystery heroes is Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, but I’m very glad that C. S. Harris has nearly everyone in the stories calling him Devlin rather than Sebastian, including his wife.

For my part, I started out using normal first names for my historical heroes and evolved to surname sounding ones. So far I’ve spent delicious time with Ben, Caleb, Garrett, Deegan/Dig, J.W. (Jefferson Waylon), Thorton/Thorn (Richard, though only the heroine calls him that occasionally), and the manuscripts in production features Talmadge Hammond and Langston Avery…or Tal and Lang as they are more frequently called.


Consider the genre you are writing in.

Contemporary heroes get an entirely different set of priorities when named. The hero in my first published book was Robert formally but he answered to Rob. Now, my dad’s name was Robert but he was Bob and Bob is not a hero’s name in a romantic comedy to me. Bob’s the guy next door, at the next desk over, the fellow who keeps your car engine purring. Oddly enough, I dated two guys named Bob and they just didn’t work out. I guess they were lacking that “hero-ness” I was looking for.

My brothers are Jim, Rick, and John. My grandfathers were Lawrence and Otto. I had uncles-by-marriage named Steve and Joe. Only one of these names make it to my hero naming list – Rick – but I don’t use it, simply find it quite acceptable for other writers to use for their heroes. The guys who have spilled into my romantic comedy world have been Mark, Harry (yeah, he surprised me as I’d never have thought a Harry would make the list), Adam, Jake, Matt, Pat, Kevin (only because he ended up with a spin-off I’d never intended), Sam, Fletch (Fletcher), Nate, Tim, Max, and Zack. Still in progress tales feature Jack, Hugh (blame Jackman and Grant for that one), Kit, Nick, Murphy, and Hank.


And those heroines…

Now when it comes to naming heroines one can go with very feminine names or those that have juxtaposition. After all, our heroines today don’t require a guy to rescue them. They sort out how to rescue themselves and simply appreciate having a male sidekick (the hero) along for the ride. If he’s proficient in an area she isn’t, all the better. Such a woman was Laura Holt of the old Remington Steele TV series. She has a feminine first name but a hard male sounding surname, and before the charming cat burglar waltzed into her life, assuming the name she’d made up from the combination of a typewriter manufacturer and a sports team, she’d already built a well-respected and successful private detective agency – even if her “boss” was a figment of her imagination, created to trick clients into hiring her.


Consider the combination of soft (feminine) and hard (masculine).

Definitely worth keeping in mind – that combination of soft (feminine) and hard (masculine) in naming a kickass heroine…or simply one who is very successful in whatever profession she follows.

Again, the era, social class, even geographical or ethnicity required in your story can play a part in naming your heroine.


Nicknames can help personalize the character.

I’ll confess, I like nicknames. The only time I ever write out my “legal” name – Elizabeth – is when legality is required. I answer to Beth – or whatever first name is appearing on the cover of a book I’m signing. I have quite a few pseudonyms, after all. Anyway, because I like nicknames, my characters tend to have them (reference the already noted male names). It’s very rare for one of my female characters to have a name that doesn’t convert to a nickname. In fact, I think only Anne Larkin in Nikrova’s Passion didn’t land a nickname or pet name.

In my historical romances Lillian answered to Lacey, Katherine to Kate, Winona to Wyn, Lilith to Lilly, Harriette to Hart or Lucky, Louisa to Lou, and in the in-progress stories Noletta is Letty and Rachel is Rach.

Now with historical heroines there are times when they might be hiding the fact that they are female. That happens in a story still on the drawing board. My heroine, Bernadette, morphed into Bernie, disguising herself as a boy to accompany and work a gold claim with her father. Monikers were common for men who headed west so because she is rated as very successful in snaring game up mountain, she gets the name Timberline, which is what she is called around camp – where only one person knows she’s not a boy.

Such considerations don’t come into play when the story is a contemporary one. I’ve called Charlene both Charlie and Chuck, Valentina answered to Val, Kristine to Kris, Erica to Tinkerbell or Tink (hero’s pet name for her), Laura to Slick (hero’s choice again), Roxanne to Roxy, Brenda to Bren, Veronica into Roni, Meave was called Miv by her ex-husband/best friend, Beatrice got both Bea and Trixie, and in the still in progress tales Penelope gets to be Penn, Audrey is Dree, Astral Love (yeah, she has a hippy mother with atrocious baby naming talents) answers to Al.


Don’t forget about those secondary characters!

Of course, when it comes to naming the secondary characters I hit the Names for Babies books or occasionally look for ethnic names via the Internet.


The No-No of naming.

My very first editor told me to never give characters similar sounding names or names that began with the same letter. Ever since then when I’ve begun the naming process for a book, I jot down the alphabet and then cross off each letter as it is taken for a character’s first name. Therefore, in the manuscript where the heroine’s name is Audrey but she answers to Dree, both the A and D got crossed off as no longer in play.


Last names are important, too!

I do the same thing with surnames but here one also needs to be aware of similar endings. Because I use my old long-ago-dumped married name, Henderson, for romance novels, I very carefully avoid using the -son, -sen endings for surnames. Here are some of the other surname endings that it’s good to keep in mind – that is use them for only one character’s surname in a story:

-berg/burg/burgh, -ton/town/ten, -woods, -ford/furd, -ette, -mer/mere, -gan/gen/gane/gene, -hert/bert, -dale/deal, -ham, -rey/ray, -ward/wards, -mound/mond/mund, -yn, -ing, -bell/belle/bella/belli, -ery/ary, -ness, -shire, -wall, -land, or other endings.

Also be aware of overuse of Mc, Mac, O’, de la, L’ and similar ethnic related starts to surnames.


Complete the name with the perfect surname.

How do you find surnames though? To me this was the hardest part for a long time. I mean, you can’t really run through those of your friends, family, and former classmates or workmates, right?

Some ways to find them are via a printed phone book (probably soon to be obsolete). Open it blindly, close your eyes and point to something. If it doesn’t ring right to you, try again until you hit the perfect name. I’ve heard of writers pulling out their class yearbooks and cruising surnames, but if you do be sure the first name you give a character doesn’t sound like the one your classmate had. Getting inspiration from street signs is also handy, for instance, Purcell Avenue, or town names, like Breckenridge.

My favorite way to find surnames anymore is to head to the Internet and ask for a list of county names. Now if you ask for those from Nevada, you’re not going to have much of a list to choose from. The counties there are mostly huge and few – just 17 to choose from. However, there are 254 counties in Texas. I used some of those to supply surnames for characters in At Twilight. Need an Irish name? There are 32 counties in Ireland. Consider accessing lists from other countries as well.


Throw out all the rules when naming characters in fantasy or science fiction.

And what can you do if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction? Probably go crazy inventing a few names by rearranging letters, substituting vowels or consonants, or heading back to the old chronicles, like the Icelandic sagas, the Doomsday Book, or medieval legends (The Poem of the Cid, The Song of Roland – oldest surviving bit of French literature dates to Charlemagne, Chretien de Troyes’ Arthurian tales, and other chansons de geste)

If you’re really lucky, your characters will walk into your head and tell you their names, but there will still be plenty of characters who don’t. At least you don’t have to compromise with a spouse over naming a character, though you probably do for your nonfictional children.


[box] Beth is a long-time SavvyAuthors presenter and she’ll be giving a one-week workshop all about how you can continue to sell and gain readers through the judicious use of your backlist. Think of your backlist as inventory that can not only be sold but be leveraged to give your career new direction…and readers!

Beth’s workshop,Blow the dust off your back-list and boost your writing sales with a branding makeover,  starts on September 12th.  [/box]

SUPERSTAR75[box type=”Release”] Revisit the recent past with SUPERSTAR as career dreams and love lock horns in the late 20th century (1964-1994). For Paul Montgomery those dreams are of music — more specifically, rock ‘n’ roll. For Aurora Chambers it is fashion design. Both are willing to do whatever it takes to be a success, even if their love for each other gets caught in the crossfire. But sometimes love simply isn’t enough.





[box type=”bio”] Beth DanielsBeth Daniels now has 26 years of being a published novelist under her belt. During that time she’s written romantic-comedy-suspense, romantic-comedy, historical romantic adventure, and young adult romantic-comedy under a variety of names. She’s worked with editors at Harlequin, Berkley, Zebra, Leisure, Aladdin, and some smaller houses. A few years back she began turning the vast number of fiction writing workshops she’s presented into trade paperback and e-book editions, but of late her interest has turned to the mystery and fantasy market where she is attempting to reinvent herself in urban fantasy/mystery and Weird West Steampunk stories. Visit her at,, or Find her on Facebook at BethHendersonAuthor and on Twitter at @BethDaniels1, @Beth__Henderson, or @JBDaneWriter.[/box]

First published in the romance market in 1990 and went on to write over 30 books under a variety of pseudonyms and subgenres (romantic comedy, histori...
I love names that are ironic: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Kitty the Werewolf. It can be hard to hit on one that works but when you do, solid gold. Thanks for a great post, Beth!