Wednesday, June 17, 2009


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!


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?”

“Go ahead.”


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.

“What’s that?”

“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.


Paty Jager said...

Names are always fun to come up with. It ranks up there with premise for me in getting me excited about a story. Connecting a name to a character makes them real.

Fun Post, Cheryl!

Kathy Otten said...

My characters aren't real until they have a name. And it seems like once I've got one everything about that character comes to life. Your story sounds great, can't wait to get a copy.

Anne Carrole said...

Like Kathy, I have to get the name right from the start for my characters or I can't write their story. I love checking out old books and records for names for historicals and I use rodeo rosters for my contemporary westerns.

Celia Yeary said...

Cheryl--I guess it's a common trait for writers. I create a name before the story, and names come almost instantly. If I have a first name, a last name usually just appears. I, also, collect names. I have a list of male, female in a notebook--Tilly Jane, Lailani--unusual ones. I used Tilly Jane in a WIP, and when her character developed, I realized I'd matched her character with the name--not vice-versa. Good post! My turn tomorrow. Celia

Kelley said...

Great post. Character names should fit the time period. I really like the name Kaed btw. By spelling it different, you gave your hero a unique name that fit that particular time period.

Debra St. John said...

Choosing the right name for both the hero and the heroine is so important. I can have ideas spinning, but until those characters have a name, the story doesn't go anywhere. This is fun information about researching names from the past. Thanks for sharing!

Helen Hardt said...

Cheryl, I always wondered how you came up with "Kaed." It's a unique and very powerful sounding name. Great post!


Susan Macatee said...

I often wonder how I manage to keep coming up with names for all my new characters without repeating them. Although I have reused minor character names.

Great excerpt!!

Tanya Hanson said...

Hi Cheryl, I love your excerpt and know I'll love the whole book.

I work hard finding names. My hubby thinks Brixton, my current hero, has a dumb one LOL, but when it forumlated in my mind, it was perfect.

As for me, my first name has always been mispronounced and misspelled, so we gave our kids classic but ordinary names. It's amazing, though, with such a basic last name, more people than not spell it "sen".

I love finding great names. My genealogy is fairly foreign both sides, and the names are too ethnic to use often, but yes, I have when I can.

That said, Kaed is great. I've seen Cade, but not this version.

Congrats and thanks for the fun blog.

Cheryl said...

Hi Paty,
I think you are right about that. I believe my people are REAL or I couldn't write about them in a realistic way. So connecting a name to a character is the first step, for me too, in making them come alive.

Thanks for commenting!

Cheryl said...

Hi Kathy,

That's how I feel too! I can't just think of them as "the hero and the heroine." Getting their names makes them come alive for me, and the story unfolds rapidly afterward. Thanks for the kind words!


Cheryl said...

That is a great idea--the rodeo rosters! Living here in Oklahoma, we can just read the "births" in the paper -- they read like rodeo rosters in a lot of places! LOL

Cheryl said...

I've been gone all day and getting ready to leave again! Thanks so much for taking the time to come by. I'm like you--the name FIRST, then the story takes on a life of its own! In a way, it makes it easier to come up with the plot and storyline once the characters have told me what their names are. LOL Great idea with the notebook. I have about 4 baby name books I use, too--one is huge and has names from all different parts of the world, divided up. I have used that thing sooooo much, it's unbelievable. Had a couple of students who wanted to borrow it, but I never loan that one out. LOL

Cheryl said...

Thanks, Kelley! I liked it, too, because it was unique but not TOO strange, and --I know this sounds silly-- but his brother and sister had somewhat unusual names too--Kevin and Marissa. It makes you think about what kind of parents he had--his father had to be a very independent sort--headstrong, to take the family and settle where he did. Maybe even a little foolish. Not that I went into the backstory a lot, but who knows? There might be a place for it later--I might want to write about the sibs at some point.

Thanks for stopping by.

Cheryl said...

Hi Debra,

I'm like that, too. Got to have the name first. I have another section planned for the heroines'names, too--just didn't want to make this blog post any longer than it was. Next time, I'll tackle the female names.

Thanks for commenting!

Cheryl said...


Glad you enjoyed it. I always liked that name, and have another friend who writes in the same time period, though her books are based in Colorado and have to do with mining. We were both working on something (weird) where our heroes were named some variation of Cade--hers was "Cade" and mine was "Kaed." Now the weird thing was, we had just met one another and started comparing our story notes, etc. and I started telling her about a book I'd written about a half-breed gunslinger, Johnny Starr. She said, "OMG, I wrote one about a half-breed gunslinger, only he was half Mexican, named Johnny Torres." LOLLOL We cracked up. Just shows how are minds worked alike, I guess.

Thanks for stopping in!

Cheryl said...

Hi Susan,
I don't think you can help reusing some of the names for your minor characters! I know I've done that. I have a mental image of my hero in each story, and their personalities are different in subtle ways. Usually, the name just comes to me. But it has to be strong and sexy!LOL

Cheryl said...

Hi Tanya!

That is so sweet of you to say! I'm so glad you like the excerpts. Isn't it great to be here where we have such a great choice of good western romances to pick from?

I like that name, Brixton! It's different and very masculine! (And sexy, too!) My daughter is "JESSICA" for a reason! LOL And our last name is always misspelled--everyone thinks it's PEAR rather than PIER. As a side note, we named our son "CASEY"--thinking what a great masculine name that was. When he started preschool, it seemed that 1989 was the year everyone decided to name their girls "Casey" too! So it became kind of a "unisex" name--but he also had a girl in his class named "Michael" (she went by MIMI).

Thanks for commenting. I can't wait to get Marrying Minda, too!

Janice said...

I got too many John's in my family. My dad and my brother have the name Johnny, and my new BIL is John and so is my hubby's brother and his middle son.

During some genealogy research I found one of the family names, Joel. It dates back to 1650.


Cheryl said...

Hi Janice!
Joel is a nice name, and you don't see it used a lot. It's different, but not "weird"--Your family is like mine with the "Johns"--there are a lot of them. At one point, my great grandfather had a cousin named John, and he was also named John. He had black hair and his cousin had red hair, so they called them Black John and Red John to distinguish!

Thanks for commenting!

Candance Vandermark said...

Hi Cheryl!

Great post. Picking a name for your character is as important as picking a name for your children, you don't want anything that you will regret later. And this is kind of a permanent thing too, especially if you are published.

I love choosing names for my characters, but generally I develop the personalities then the name.

Can you believe 'Buttercup' is in baby name books? Buttercup Johnson. Evelyn, Evangeline, and Sarah are some of my top favorite names for girls. Gabriel, Nicolas, and Aiden are some of my favorite male names.

Thanks for the wonderful!