19 September 2011: Name that character

Posted: September 19, 2011 in Uncategorized



I don’t care what you write, if you’re a writer, there’s going to be one aspect of it that’s harder for you than anything else. For some it’s dialogue. For some (reporters I used to know) it’s making deadline. Or staying within your outline.

For me, it’s naming a character. I’ll sometimes spend days trying to come up with Just. The. Right. Name. I mean, how long did it take Ian Fleming to come up with James Bond? I don’t know the answer to that, but I sure hope it didn’t just pop into his head. Not to mention his other, punny, names (Miss Moneypenny, Plenty O’Toole, Felix Leiter, etc.).

When I wrote my first novel, Enemy Within, I could not decide on a name for the lead character. In fact, couldn’t think of names for any character. Nothing seemed to work. So I started recalling some character names that always stuck with me, like, of course, James Bond. And of course Travis McGee came to mind. Fairly mundane sounding names, but they had a ring to them. Sure, you’ve got your Thomas Magnum, Josey Wales, Race Bannon, Billie Joe McAllister, Rooster Cogburn, Jason Bourne, even Huckleberry Finn. But I wanted a name that didn’t sound like an obvious character name, like Dash Riprock (pictured, with Miss Hathaway) or Dirk Pitt.

I was also writing a piece for Civil War magazine at the time and was researching Confederate cavalry commanders, specifically Wade Hampton and J.E.B. Stuart.  I liked “Wade” and since I had a first name, I used Stuart’s surname and had Wade Stuart. But I was still stuck on just one name.  I needed a name for the sheriff, and one night I looked up from the desk where I wrote and saw an outlet on the wall with the words “Gage Mfg.” written on it. Sheriff Gage. Thomas Gage. Tom. Hey, that worked.

I still take a long time to come up with names, and part of the reason is because I’m looking for something with a rhythm to it. Read the names above again — there’s an almost iambic pentameter feel to them. Strong syllables, good hard consonants. Especially when I’m trying to come up with good Southern names. Not stereotypical Southern names, either (Billy Bob, Billy Ray, etc.). I never know what I’m going for, but I always know when I get there. And once I decide on the name, then I can begin to get to know the character and hear his or her story. Like meeting someone for the first time.

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