A Detective by Any Other Name …

Gerry Boyle here, taking a break from looking over lists of names. Names in the phone book.  Names on the spines of the books on my shelves. Names in the index of the homicide-investigation manual on my desk. Names on baby websites. Cory, Cosmas, Costa, Courtland … 

No babies in sight, at least not mine. I’m just searching for just the right names for the characters in a book I’m sketching out. You can only go on so long with nameless people. Outlines, maybe. A one-page synopsis. But once the characters start coming to life, they need to be called something other than NASTY BIKER  or SKINNY COP. They need names that fit their personalities and identities. They need names that are just right.

I say this as I’m reading Hard Times by that master of names, Charles Dickens. We know Oliver Twist and Ebenezer Scrooge, and the rest of the Dickens all-stars. But in Hard Times, set in a grimy industrial town and not one of Dickens’ most well-known novels, the names are just as good. Josiah Bounderby, smugly rising above his modest beginnings. Sissy Jupe, the scrappy circus kid.  James Harthouse, the languid playboy. Mrs. Sparsit, a dried-up and bankrupt widow clinging to the memory of her aristocratic past. Mrs. Sparsit. Is that perfect or what?

I admire writers who have the naming gift. I don’t think I have it. At least it doesn’t come easily. The exception, maybe, is Jack McMorrow, the reporter hero of one of my series. The name feels right but when I’m asked where it came from—an occasional question from readers, especially those named McMorrow—I don’t recall. I’m assuming I was just sitting there at the typewriter (yes, a typewriter) and it just came to me. I don’t recall any other options. Jack and Roxanne and later their friend Clair. It was like the names came out of thin air.

It doesn’t seem to work that way any more. I puzzled over names for the protagonist of my second series, Brandon Blake. I wanted alliteration. I didn’t want anything too Celtic. I wanted a given name that a young mom might have selected in the 1990s, when Brandon was born. I think I looked at baby-names lists. Brandon it was. And Mia. And Winston and Lily. And a cop named Cat. A wooden Chris Craft cruiser boat named Bay Witch.

I do know the origins of that one. My eldest daughter was a lifeguard at a city pool. She looks like someone who might be a lifeguard on a popular television show of a similar name. But she also is very tough and the envelope-pushing kids at the pool soon learned to steer clear of Miss Boyle ’cause she didn’t take any crap. So Bay Witch she was thereby dubbed. I filed that one away and when it came time to name Brandon’s  boat, I pulled it out.

But as usual, I digress.

To me the naming of characters is one of the more mysterious steps in the writing process. I think we know when a name is a clunker (hopefully before publication) and which ring true. I have some that make me wince a bit (a reporter named Estusa)  and some that still make me smile (an ex-Marine special forces veteran named Clair).

So I’m interested to know how other writers (published and not-yet published) choose the names for the people they invent. Do you think they’re important? Do you slap them on or do you slave over them? Does a name make or break a book? Would the Spenser novels have succeeded if the Boston detective had been named Byron? Would Sam Spade by any other name be as memorable? How ’bout Carlotta Carlyle? Kat Scarpetta? Kinsey Millone?

Or that Dickensian investigator, Inspector Bucket?

So please weigh in. Let’s see if we can unlock the mystery. In the meantime, I’ll go back to my lists. I’m looking for the name of a forlorn sort of woman, working class, high school GED. Now in her 30s. Two kids, the father a man she never loved, barely liked, but found herself bound to early on by their sharing of a terrible secret. Rachel? No. Susan?  Nah. Janet? Nope. Jennie? Hmmm.

Suggestions? I’ll be right here, lists, Dickens, and all.







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20 Responses to A Detective by Any Other Name …

  1. Brenda Buchanan says:

    For the character you describe, how about one of those names that ends in “leen”. Not Eileen, or Colleen or Maureen. Your character sounds more hard-edged than those. But Darleen or Marleen might work. Or Carleen. Yeah, I like Carleen.

  2. MCWriTers says:

    Boy can I relate. I have a book I’ve rewritten over and over, and I think part of the problem is that my central character has the wrong name. Names really matter. Sometimes they just feel right; sometimes we struggle. In the new Joe Burgess…I have Joe Burgess, of course, but I also have his godson, who was named after him. Couldn’t have two Joes in the book…so he is Joey, and I just have to hope there’s not too much confusion.

    Your biker guy is named Chopper. Your skinny cop is named Ray. Your lost-soul of a single mom isn’t named Jennie, because that’s too upbeat a name. Brenda may be right with Carleen, or maybe Carly for short.

    I have a baby name book. A book on naming characters. And a bunch of old phone books. I also thumb through phone books in other cities, and avidly read lists. I have a facebook friend named Melora, and yes, I absolutely have to use that name some time. It’s grand.


  3. Gerry, I’ve taken a surprising number of names from local towns. Possibly in desperation. In one of my older novels set in Tudor England, Lady Dixfield is a major character! (For non-local folk, Dixfield is about eight miles from my house in Wilton) And more than a few times I’ve found a name by running my gaze over my WIP reference shelf. And of course there is Bates the prison guard in one of my Face Down mysteries, named for my alma mater. Have you used the name Colby yet? Or the nickname Mule?

    • MCWriTers says:

      Haven’t named a character Colby, Lea, but have had characters who were Colby and Bowdoin alums (family connections). But area towns? Johnny Palermo. Jennie Albion. Mr. Windsor. I’m liking it!

  4. MCWriTers says:

    I meant Caitlyn in last reply.

  5. Graham Nye says:

    How about Claudia? It is old fashioned, Maine like.

    I like Clair as a character and as a name. Have known several in rural Maine.

  6. MCWriTers says:

    Gerry…I have a very bad Claire in my new book; Julia has a nicely complicated Claire in her series. Now..a guy named Clair?

    I’ve got a guy named Chub. Reggie the Can Man. Go sit at Dunkin’ Donuts or Tim Hortons and see what the guys coming in for midmorning coffee call each other.

  7. Rob says:

    When I am looking for name inspiration, I wander through the cemetery by my house. It dates back to the late 1700s, so it is particularly great for period names, like “Mehitable” and “Rhodena” and “Argus” and “Rofus” (not “Rufus”). It also has some famous names, like “Margaret Houlihan,” “Edmund Fitzgerald,” and “Edwin Arlington Robinson” (that one is actually THE E.A. Robinson).

    When I read the description of your woman, I am reminded of a woman I worked with at a restaurant when I was in college–mother of 2, hard working, honest, kind, but world-weary, like the weight of a thousand bad choices weighing down her every step. Her name was Sharon, and I always thought that kind of suited her. (No offense to any Sharon’s out there.)

  8. C.K.Crigger says:

    Always hold out for the right name. A misnamed character just doesn’t live, not in the writer’s mind’s eye, or then in the reader’s. Personally, I can’t see a hero named Paul, I don’t know why. Nothing wrong with then name in itself; it just isn’t heroic.

    I once changed a character’s name three times before she came to life, and the worst–or best– part is, the name is close to my own. Kind of weird.

  9. Gerry Boyle says:

    Mehitable! I was just in our village cemetery and there was a Mehitable. I even took a photo of the gravestone. Love those 18th and 19th century names. Interesting that Rob apologizes to any real Sharons out there. That’s a whole other aspect of this. Using names of people you know. Good guys, sure. Villains? That can be risky.

  10. MCWriTers says:

    Recently, I was telling my son about two ancestors on my mother’s side: Gabriel and Freelove. Can’t quite see myself putting Freelove in a book, but I did know a girl in high school whose name was Prudence. I’m imagining a set of twins…Prudence and Freelove.

    Cemeteries are great places for letting the imagination soar.


    • Gerry Boyle says:

      Are they ever. I’m sure my neighbors in the village think I’m into necromancy, seeing me strolling between the headstones so much.

    • Holley Wells says:

      I have an ancestor named Prudence Freelove, she married Charles Kitchen in 1836 and named their first daughter Freelove Kitchen.

  11. Barb Ross says:

    Oy. I just discovered through the tyranny that is global search and replace that I have a Susannah and a Sue-something in my new book. They are chapters and centuries apart, which is how I missed it, but I don’t want those readers who are more astute than the author (and there are plenty of those) to think there’s some hinted at connection. So back to the baby books.

  12. Lea Wait says:

    I have a whole shelf of “name books” — baby names, sur names, Scottish names … I love choosing names that have meanings, too … for historical characters, of course, you have to find names appropriate for the period .. but that’s also true today. No self-respecting ten years old today would be named Tiffany. But Taylor … sure! And Shirley would be, say, 70 or 75? The social security department has great lists of names. Plus all the great places people have mentioned. I’m always careful not to have two characters in one book with names starting with the same letter .. (Well, if I HAVE to. Like the twins, Sorrel and Sage, I couldn’t resist.) I find people get confused.) And I never, ever give characters the names of people in my family. I have enough family issues without people thinking I’ve named someone after “her and not me,” or “you think I’m like HER?” Just don’t do it. Not even a street sign. And when I do find a great name. I keep lists for the future ….. Great topic!

  13. How about Del? I don’t know why. I think it’s the two kids. Her born name is something long but she won’t say when people ask. I like the idea of towns–that’s great. Del Bowdoin, except no one outside of Maine and a certain alumni list would know how to say it. Sometimes, I use friends’ names. Del Doiron. For a great detective name, how about Gerry Boyle?

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