How do you name your characters?

I began today with a picture of a medieval structure in Santa Margarita in northern Italy. My husband and I were on a cruise last fall, and I particularly wanted to see Italy since I have written an historical romance set in 17th Century Italy. IMG_0010 This fortress stood overlooking the harbor and the stone matched my descriptions in the manuscript. I struggled in writing this, however, because I needed both Italian names and ones used in the 17th Century.

I discovered that choosing names for your fiction characters can be challenging. (and some writers are saying “Duh!” ) Knowing this, I’ve still gotten stuck on names. Now contemporary names for Italian characters wasn’t impossible because I bought a copy of Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Charcter Naming Sourcebook. It includes sections for male or female names, including family names, for many different cultures and ethnicities. She also added the meaning of each name and a fourteen-page essay on the ‘Art of Naming.’ But I had to research names appropriate to my time frame as well. I ended up using Aimee, Maria, Portia, Isabella, Santina and Domenica for the women and Henri, Carlo, Piero, Luca and Michel for the men.

In my mystery manuscripts I have used typical North American names and tried to throw in a bit of the New Orleans culture (which was not in Kenyon’s book). We have French, Creole, and Cajun heritages represented in names here, and many have been Anglicized or corrupted, if you prefer.
When I was teaching, students always got a laugh at my Yankee-based attempts to pronounce local first and last names. I grew up in Baltimore, and that makes you a Yankee in the deep south.
We have locals with last names like Roux, pronounced “Roo,” and Boute, pronounced “Boo-Tee.” and of course, Bourgeois, but you probably know that one. How about Gautreaux? It’s pronounced “Go-trow.” I won’t even try Troulliet or Troxclair. Then you can throw in a significant contingent of Vietnamese. It became impossible.

One thing I observed in reading other writers’ manuscripts was that names should be distinct. I recall one writer who gave all the male characters first names beginning with ‘J.’ I couldn’t keep them straight–Jason, Jared, Jack, Jeff, Joshua. It was very confusing, and I think she was persuaded to change them.
Another warning is referring to the same character with multiple names, such as using a man’s first name, his last name only (common in jobs, sports, etc), and then throw in a nickname. The reader loses track of who the writer is referring to.
Obviously, your character’s name have to be considered carefully. Women’s names in romance tend to be softer and regionally appropriate. Yet, a story set in Chicago would be fun with a woman named Dixie or Billie Jo or even Bobbie Mae. Hero’s names should be strong and masculine, although a hero named Kyle or Bruce could be fun, too.

When I’m really been stuck, I’ve taken the New Orleans phone book, blindly picked a page, and stuck my forefinger down. I got some useful, local names that way. My hero in the current manuscript, at this point, at least, is named Jim Oliver, and the heroine is Margaret Angelo. She’s a homicide detective and hates to be called Maggie, which the other cops do to piss her off.

If you’re a writer, tell me how you decide on names for your characters. I’m always interested in unique ways to make these important decisions.

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