Art by Rachel Byler
One of the less celebrated but deeply satisfying joys of being a writer is making up names. I’ve always had a gift for it. That misled my mother into thinking I had a career in advertising and my father into letting me name all our pets. I think I disappointed Dad, since Captain, Jeff, Susie, and Blue don’t display any particular brilliance. I did, however, work in ad copywriting for a few years; my mother was pretty smug about that.
In the beginning of my writing career—fourth grade onwards—I was happier to read interesting names than write them, though an optimist or a psychic would say I was looking ahead. I certainly had no shortage of models.
Jules Verne: there was a writer who knew his way around monikers. Phileas Fogg, Prince Dakkar aka Captain Nemo, Ker Karraje, Jean Passepartout.
Charles Dickens was another able namer, viz., Mr. Bumble, Uriah Heep, Samuel Pickwick, Wilkins Macawber, and the unforgettable Ebeneezer Scrooge.
Can we ever forget the casts of characters in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s books? Hester Prynne, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, the mono-named Pearl?
Even if an author only came up with one great and durable name, I’m inclined to like them and it. Washington Irving’s Ichabod Crane. Or James Fennimore Cooper’s Natty Bumpo. Linton Heathcliff and Hindley Earnshaw from the pen of Emily Brontë.
You’ll notice I haven’t dipped into fantasy or science fiction names. Somehow they seem a little too easy. I mean, if you’re already down a rabbit hole and glugging a bottle labeled Drink Me, then Jabberwock is just too predictable. Likewise, if you can turn yourself into a bird and run a school for bizarrely gifted children, why wouldn’t you answer to Miss Alma Peregrine?
I’ve also not given credit to books written in languages other than English but never translated, though I’m sure there are scores, maybe hundreds of names in those books that make their readers sigh with appreciation or roll on the floor laughing. I’m just not fluent enough in Urdu or Silbo Gomero to enjoy them.
I love naming the characters in my stories and novels. Their names don’t always leap out of my brain onto the page, I’ll have you know. In one of my novels. I named the female protagonist seven times before I got it right. Names are important. They’re worth the time I take to get them right if for no other reason than I have to live with each character for months and even years. I want to be able to call them by their name when I wake in the night and curse them for not behaving in Chapter Thirteen.
The most important thing about the names in my books is my hope that many years from now, when my books and I are both gone, someone will say, “Who wrote that story about the girl named Tamsin Lee?”
“Tigers die and leave their skins; we die and leave our names.” Japanese proverb