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.