Books by Melissa Bowersock

Saturday, August 8, 2015

A Rose is a Rose: What's in a Name?

Phone Book photo by Melissa Bowersock phonebk2I’ve just started writing a new book. I’ve had the main idea swimming around in my brain for a month or two, but just in the past couple weeks have I put together some research that is vital to the story, plus some ideas of who the main characters are and what the arc of their story will be. So far I’ve got a couple thousand words down, and within that short period of time, I’ve changed several characters names two or three times.
I love this phase of writing. I love naming my characters. At this point, I will happily, almost giddily, watch the news, a golf tournament, any sports channel with a crawler just so I can peruse the names that flow by. I could very literally sit down and read a phone book for a couple hours and be happy as a clam. For a woman who’s never been pregnant, I have an obscene number of baby name books.
Mahan, Riggs, Spieth, Charleston, Wertzel, Howland, Grogan. I love playing with the names. I test out several for each character, some monosyllabic, some polysyllabic. Why does the number of syllables matter? Let’s play a game. What sounds better?
Rhett Smith
Rhett Butler
Rhett Farthington
Of course we’re all going to recognize Rhett Butler and most likely that sounds the best to us primarily because that’s the name we know. But note how the various full names roll off the tongue, how we emphasize one syllable over another and how it all works together — or not. A couple books ago, I had a character named Lasta (long story, but it’s in the book). For her last name, I wanted something short and rather harsh to match her difficult life. I finally settled on Beck. Lasta Beck. I liked the punch of the last syllable, the hard edge to it. Lasta Purcell would have softened her name and would not have worked near as well for what I wanted, which leads to another consideration.
The sound of the consonants in the name is important. The name of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series gives us clues about his personality before we ever see him. The sibilance of the name and the similarity of Snape to snake all work to suggest someone evil, menacing, and manipulative. The shortness of Snape gives it a brittle quality (like snap), as if he might lash out at any time. And of course finding out later that Snape is not the untrustworthy snake-in-the-grass he was made out to be provides tension and revelation later in the series.
Which leads to another point. Do we want the name to reveal something about our character? Or do we want to set up something of a smoke screen? If my main character is a private detective named Rip Bolger or Clash Callahan, we get a certain idea from those tough, manly names. But what if I name him Alfonse Dardanelle? Or Willis Altamonte? It all depends on whether I want to lead the reader toward the real person behind the name or not. If I don’t want to give anything away, I might name him something rather bland — John Carpenter — and let his character develop organically from the story.
Another consideration is if the character’s nationality or heritage is important to the story. If I give my character a last name of O’Neill, Weiss, Gunther, Xi, or Chopra, that might be enough to quickly give a suggestion of the character’s physical or emotional make-up. Again, as above, it could be a clue to the character’s personality — or not. Mixing nationalities — Padraig Nguyen — could actually point up a conflict in the character’s background, or an interesting story about his beginnings. That’s the fun thing about names. They can add a huge amount of depth to our characters and really make them memorable.
I’d love to have you tell me some of the best (and worst) names you’ve used or seen. And in the meantime I’ll leave you with a little game of what might have been in an alternate universe.
So what’s in a name? You tell me.
Famous TitlesFamous NamesFamous Lines
The Great GillenhamReggie ButlerCall me Rupert.
The Picture of Dorian GerberCindy O’HaraSonia! Hey, Sonia!
Leonard, King of the ApesCaptain ApplebyElementary, my dear Winkleman.
Monica of the d’UrbervillesAtticus PheasantOpen the pod bay doors, Alvin.
Susie’s ChoiceFrank ChristianToughy, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.
The Mystery of Edwin DoobyHester PiffelBond. Freddie Bond.
Dickie CopperfieldShelby HolmesMrs. Dingle said she would buy the flowers herself.
This article was originally published on Indies Unlimited on June 3, 2014


  1. I love playing with names too, and often change my characters names before the book is finished. It's also important to check the names are relevant to the time and place. It wouldn't work to have a thoroughly modern name for a 19th century Irish lass.

  2. Also true, Vicky; that's another layer I hadn't thought about. But yes, I change my characters' names several times as I go, which of course means updating my story bible so I can keep it all straight. I think I have the names all set, then see another one and go, "Oooooh...!" I guess the only time it all ends is when I push the publish button.