Recently I was having lunch with a friend and she asked me how I came up with names for my characters.
I want my characters to stand out so I look for names that are just a little bit different from the common and popular. Since I am writing historical fiction, a great place to start are both diocese and census records of the period I’m writing about. Then there is always the old standby of baby-name websites I also check.
To settle on a particular name, I first search and search until I find one that resonates with me. In some cases, I gather a list then narrow it down from there. My main anglo character in GTT is a woman and to find out her name, I searched the internet for 19th century female names. One site mentioned that the name Melina was used somewhere in the New England area during my time period. Melina. I liked it. Not only is it feminine but it also has a lot of promise. Since my character is a woman who masquerades as a man, Melina can be shortened to Mel, which can be short for Melvin. Because it’s human nature that we only see what we want, or expect, to see, the combination of her shortened name and dress would lend itself to a male figure and no one would think otherwise.
Picking out the rest of her name was not difficult at all. Middle names are a dime a dozen so I picked Ann. As far as her last name, since she is a strong woman, she needed a strong last name. Strong sounding names have hard sounds, such as “k,” “p,” and “t” so I settled on Parker. Melina Ann Parker. Say it out loud and see how it rolls off your tongue. Feminine, easy to pronounce and strong. Perfect.
Next task, what do I name my main Tejano character? You would think that since I live in south central Texas I should have no problem with this one. Wrong. Just as Caucasian parents do, Hispanic parents also typically gravitate to the more popular names when they name their children and since I wanted a name that is different, I had to go on the hunt once again. This time I didn’t find anything I was happy with. So I turned to one of the authors who inspired me to write historical fiction – James Michener. I picked up his book Texas, skimmed through it and lo and behold, I found what I was looking for. I combined the first name of one of his Tejano characters and the last name of that character’s maternal grandmother, then finished the process with further research on historical accuracy. Let me introduce to you – Benito Saldana.
Naming my slave character was the hardest. After much brainstorming, I consistently came up empty-handed. When this happens, I’ve learned that I have to wait until my character gives me their name so in the meantime I use what I call default names. BG stands for Bad Guy and GG is Good Guy. Not very original but I have to use something. Sometimes when the character is neither the good guy nor the bad guy, I use the letter A. I originally used it because it’s the first letter of the alphabet. The period I’m writing about is 1835-1836 and at that time, slaves were called either negro, negress, or the other unmentionable “n” word. In this case I used the letter N. I could have used the letter “s” for slave, but I wanted to use the term “negro” because that would set me in my fictional world much better than the term “slave” would, which is very important when trying to figure out a character’s name. My next step was to sketch out one of his scenes. I sketched and sketched and all of a sudden there it is. Ebenezer.
This is not the only way to develop character names. Sometimes we wake up and we know the name. We can use the phone book or mix and match names of family and friends and even mix and match names of folks who are neither family nor friends. The options are endless. So you tell me, what’s in a name and how do you name your characters?