I am a collector of names. Have been, ever since I was a kid. Probably because I always wished for a different one, myself. Mine wasn’t really exotic, but it was…different. Cheryl. My parents decided on the pronunciation of “Chair-yl” rather than the more common way of saying it. The way a million other people said it…with a “SH” sound, “Sheryl,” rather than the hard “CH” sound.
So when I began writing, I knew my characters had to have ‘good’ names—names that fit. Names that weren’t too strange, but not too common. Names that were appropriate for the time period, the setting, and the culture.
The hero, of course, had to have a name that was also something that could be whispered by the heroine in the throes of passion, yet something that would be tough enough on the villain’s lips to strike a modicum of fear in his heart, just by uttering it.
Because I was writing historical western romance, I decided to pull up a chart that would give me an accurate “slice of life”—possible names for my heroes. According to US Social Security records, the top ten names for men in 1880 were: John, William, James, Charles, George, Frank, Joseph, Thomas, Henry, and Robert.
Okay, I could maybe work with the top four. In fact, the first book I ever wrote was about a gunslinger of this time period called ‘Johnny Starr.’
And William could be shortened to ‘Will’—still masculine; but never ‘Willie.’ James—very masculine, and unwittingly, calls up the rest of the line—‘Bond. James Bond.’ At least, it does for me. I could even go with Jamie. Charles is pushing it. George, Frank, and Joe are names I have and would use for a minor character, but I’d never use those for my hero. They’re somehow just too ordinary. Thomas? Again, a great secondary character name, but not a show-stopper. Henry…eh. And Robert is just ‘okay.’
I fast-forwarded a hundred years to 1980. Here are the top 10: Michael, Christopher, Jason, David, James, Matthew, Joshua, John, Robert, and Joseph. Four of the same names were there, though not in the same poll position. By 2008, only William remained in the top 10. John had fallen to #20, James to #17, Joseph to #13. The others had been replaced, not all by modern names, but most in the top 10 were surprisingly “old fashioned.”
2008: Jacob, Michael, Ethan, Joshua, Daniel, Alexander, Anthony, William, Christopher, Matthew.
This told me something. If you aren’t too wild with the names you choose, you have quite a lot of choices! We know that Jacob, Michael, Joshua, Daniel, and Matthew were Biblical names. Just because they weren’t on the “top 10” list in 1880 doesn’t mean they weren’t being used—a lot!
Another source of names for that time period is family records. If you go back through old family documents, it’s amazing to find some of the odd names that cropped up.
Still maybe not ‘protagonist’ material, but your secondary characters could benefit. And who knows? You may find the perfect ‘hero’ name!
No matter what you choose, remember these rules, too:
1. Sound and compatibility—Say your character’s name aloud. Does the first name go well with the last name you’re using? Be careful about running the name together—“Alan Nickerson” or “Jed Dooly” aren’t good choices. Avoid rhyming names such as “Wayne Payne”—and try to stay away from cutesy names that might make your hero the focus of ridicule.
2. Uniqueness—I’m sure my parents were only trying to be ‘unique’ by pronouncing my name differently than the other 99.9% of the people in the world would automatically say it, but you don’t want your hero to have such an odd name that readers trip over it every time they come to it. Louis L’Amour was a master at coming up with ‘different’ names that were simple. Hondo Lane, Ring Sackett, Shalako, Conagher…and the list goes on.
3. Genealogy—Does it play into your characters’ storyline? If so, you may want to come up with a neat twist somehow on a common name. In my first manuscript, the gunfighter, Johnny Starr, is named for his father, but the names are reversed. His father was Thomas Jonathan Brandon. He is known as Thomas in the story. Johnny was named Jonathan Thomas Brandon. He goes by Johnny. This keeps a theme alive in my story of the ‘fathers and sons’ of this family, and their relationships. It weighs heavily, because Thomas is dying, but Johnny doesn’t know it. They’ve been estranged for many years.
When Johnny’s own son is born, his wife, Katie, changes the name they’ve decided on just before the birth. She makes Johnny promise to name him after himself and his father, Thomas Jonathan, bringing the circle around once more, and also completing the forgiveness between Johnny and his dying father.
4. Meaning—This might somehow play into your story and is good to keep track of. What do your characters’ names mean? This is a great tool to have at your disposal when you are writing—it can be a great conversation piece somewhere, or explain why your villain is so evil.
5. Nicknames and initials—this can be more important than you think. You may need to have your hero sign something or initial something. Don’t make him be embarrassed to write his initials and don’t give him a name that might be shortened to an embarrassing nickname.
In my book, Fire Eyes, the protagonist has an odd name—Kaedon Turner. I gave him an unusual first name to go with a common last name. I learned later that Caden, shortened to Cade, though not common for the time was not unheard of. Kaedon, shortened to Kaed, was just a different variation. It sets him apart from the other marshals, and emphasizes his unique past in a subtle way.
Below are some excerpts from Fire Eyes, available now through TWRP, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. I hope you enjoy!
EXCERPTS FROM FIRE EYES:
Marshal Kaed Turner has just been delivered to Jessica’s doorstep, wounded and unconscious by the Choctaw Indians. This is part of their first conversation, Kaed’s introduction.
“Just pull.” Her patient moistened his lips. “Straight up. That’s how it went in.”
She wanted to weep at the steel in his voice, wanted to comfort him, to tell him she’d make it quick. But, of course, quick would never be fast enough to be painless. And how could she offer comfort when she didn’t even know what to call him, other than Turner?
“You waitin’ on a…invitation?” A faint smile touched his battered mouth. “I’m fresh out.”
Jessica reached for the tin star. Her fingers closed around the uneven edges of it. No. She couldn’t wait any longer. “What’s your name?” Her voice came out jagged, like the metal she touched.
His bruised eyes slitted as he studied her a moment. “Turner. Kaedon Turner.”
Jessica sighed. “Well, Kaedon Turner, you’ve probably been a lot better places in your life than this. Take a deep breath and try not to move.”
He gave a wry chuckle, letting his eyes drift completely closed. “Do it fast. I’ll be okay.”
She nodded, even though she knew he couldn’t see her. “Ready?”
From Kaed’s POV—Finding out his “angel’s” name!
“I need to stop the bleeding. You were lucky.”
“One lucky sonofabitch.”
“I meant, because it went all the way through. So we don’t have to…to dig it out.”
There was that hesitation again, but he already knew what it was she didn’t want to have to say to him. He said it instead.
“All we have to do is burn it.”
She let her breath out in a rush, as if she’d been holding it, dreading just how she was going to tell him. “Right. Sounds like the voice of experience.”
She touched his good arm and he reached up for her, his warm, bronze hand swallowing her smaller one. Her fingers were cold, and he could tell she was afraid, no matter how indifferent she tried to act.
“You’ve got one on me,” he muttered.
“Your name. Or, do I just call you angel?”
He felt the smile again, knew he had embarrassed her a little, but had pleased her as well.
“Jessica Monroe, at your service, Mr. Turner.”
“Don’t go all formal on me.” He paused, collecting his scattering, hard-to-hold thoughts. “I like Kaed better.”
“Better than Mr. Turner?”
He opened his eyes a crack and watched as she gave him a measuring look, her cinnamon gaze holding his probing stare for a moment. “What you’re doin’ for me warrants a little more intimacy, don’t’cha think, Jessica?”
She glanced back down at the seeping wound, worrying her lower lip between even, white teeth. Her auburn hair did its best to escape its bun.
Kaed’s thoughts jumped and swirled as he tried to focus on her, wondering disjointedly how she’d look if she let her hair tumble free and unbound. And her eyes. Beautiful. A man could get lost in the secrets of her eyes.
Maybe he should’ve used a word other than intimacy.