What’s in a Name?

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theodora-obrienTheodora Bryant
Developmental Copy Editor

If you’re writing a novel, just about everything. Names can set the tone, the era, the genre, sometimes the hidden meaning.

Think about Flash Gordon, Scarlett O’Hara, Pip, Harry Potter, Romeo and Juliet. Jay Gatsby (aka James Gatz; Fitzgerald had to come up with two names for him) and Daisy Buchanan. True, the characters are famous because their stories are famous, but I’d argue it could be the other way around. How far would Scarlett have gotten, really, if she’d been named Erma Obstertorst? Who knows, I suppose, but I believe those names were chosen with considerable care.

I have found that too many authors don’t give enough thought to their antagonist or protagonists’ names. They’ll throw in the first name that pops into their heads. And then follow with other character names that begin with that character’s first letter, until the book is cluttered with endless Beths, Bobs, Barrys, Belindas, Bruces, Brices, Bristols, Bethanys, and Bettys.

A favorite naming convention is to borrow from Earth and nature features. Rocky, Brooke, Willow, Spring, Lily, Ebony. What I’ve found with that is that the names often don’t match the character. Without much thought, Willow could be in a wheelchair. One vividly horrid character in a novel I edited was a child-abuser named Rosie. Did not fit.

I suggest first you know what your protagonist and antagonist’s characteristics are, then name them by researching those features.

Where do you search? Google. For the heck of it, I put “Boy name+strong, silent, caring” and got thirty-six choices back. How about a “male, liar”? Got nowhere on that, so I tried “name for liar” and got back a great list of famous liars. I had to search a lot harder when I was changing Rosie’s name above, but finally narrowed it to Lilith.

The Bible is a great source of names. So is mythology, though this works best for fantasy and science fiction; names like Tobadzastsini (slayer of alien gods) don’t fit in just anywhere . . . but cut it in half to Tobad, or even Zastsini, and you could have a Star Wars-type name. . . .

There are many “baby name” lists on the ’Net, too.

By researching the names, not only do you find a hidden gold mine that generally cover all eras, but you know the double-meaning that gives your story more depth.

The important thing is not to “wing it” with names. Find them. Know them. Own them.


THEODORA BRYANT focuses on mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, adventure, and horror titles. She has considerable experience with trade non-fiction. As Editorial Director of her own publishing house, Theodora published almost 100 titles, garnering several awards in “Best Of” categories. Almost half of the titles were bought for paperback reprints, and two were optioned for TV/movies. She has invaluable knowledge about the industry, the type of people who run it, how to work within it, and tips for getting your foot in the door. She’s reviewed, evaluated, and edited thousands of manuscripts through the years, and uses that knowledge to help her clients produce results-driven manuscripts, query letters, and synopses. She works particularly hard at staying in the author’s “voice,” making sure the facts and dialogue match the time period in which the book is set, and “losing” excess verbiage. She’s a good mentor, hard worker, and in many cases, has ultimately become a good friend.

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