The Unscientific Science of Naming Characters

Naming characters is one of my favorite pastimes!

For first names, my favorite method is searching through the Social Security’s name index. Did you know you can look up the thousand most popular names for any year after 1879? I typically scan the 500 most popular names for 1880, as most of my characters are in their teens in 1896. You can find loads of my characters’ names in the top 100 – Anna, Alice, Clara, Cora, Catherine, Lucy, Maud, Grace, Daisy, Pearl…but if a name just clicks, like Maura or Finn, I don’t worry overmuch about the historical validity.

Many popular names from the Victorian era sound a bit stuffy or grandmotherly to us now – Margaret, Ida, Bertha, Gertrude. Others are enjoying a renaissance, like Emma, Grace, and Lily. I tried to walk the line between the two, and I avoid names so evergreen that they’re tied to my real-life friends Elizabeth and Laura and Jenn. But mostly? There’s no science to it. A name pops into my head, or I scan the list and one jumps out at me, and unless there’s some obvious incongruence (not so many Madisons or Kayleighs), I go with it. It just has to feel right and help me convey something about the character. And not confuse the reader. I had to rename Eleanor late in the STAR CURSED editing process because it looked too similar to Elena on the page.

BORN WICKED takes place exclusively in Chatham, a small New England town, and aside from the well-established Ishidas, there isn’t much diversity. But in STAR CURSED the action moves to New London, where Cate encounters many more second and third-generation immigrants from the Spanish and Indo-Chinese territories, so we come across names like Mei and Parvati and Inez and Marco.

As for last names…before I wrote full-time, I worked as an administrative assistant at a university press setting up author royalties and paying scholars to evaluate the merits of our manuscripts, and sometimes I borrowed interesting surnames from my paperwork. I also love walking through old New England graveyards with a notebook and jotting down names that catch my attention. There are also a few shout-outs to friends: In BORN WICKED, several of the girls accused of witchery are named after my critique partners. In STAR CURSED, I’ve borrowed a few friends’ last names. And in literary homage, I totally stole the name Rilla from RILLA OF INGLESIDE, one of my favorite books – and there are convent girls named Lucy and Maud too!

How do you name YOUR characters?
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5 thoughts on “The Unscientific Science of Naming Characters

  1. catwinters says:

    I was just on the Social Security name site today, also checking out the 1880s section! It’s a wonderful reference, isn’t it?!

    I love the fact that you jot down surnames while wandering through New England graveyards!

  2. J says:

    Medieval people were often named for the saint on whose feast day they were born, but not necessarily. I find a lot of names in court rolls, too – ordinary people only found their way into the records when they got in trouble.

  3. I love the idea of court rolls! I name folks by referencing common names of the Elizabethan era, but sometimes a name just “happens”–like Beatrice. 🙂 It just was the perfect name at the perfect time.

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