You think it’s easy, naming characters? It’s harder than naming your own baby. In fact, it’s one of the hardest things about writing—for me, anyway. I was talking with an acquaintance at a party recently who said, “How about using my name in your next book? I don’t care if I’m playing a villain or a hero—or even just a walk-on part.” It put me on the spot. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings but choosing names for characters doesn’t work like that. It can be a daunting prospect—especially for authors who, like me, write historical novels.
First and most important, the name has to fit the era. My mysteries are set in the Roaring Twenties, so names popular in the 1950s or 1970s or today may not work well at all. Authors who set their books in the medieval era or Revolutionary Russia have an even tougher time.
One place I consult for ideas is the Social Security website where the most popular names of any given decade are listed. If I have a character who is 35 years old in 1925, I look at the records for 1890 to learn which names prevailed. I don’t necessarily use the most popular names on the list, but I definitely want a name from that list. For example, the top 5 names for boys in 1890 were John, William, James, George, and Charles; the top 5 for girls were Mary, Anna, Margaret, Helen, and Elizabeth. There is zero overlap with today’s popular names (Liam, Noah, Ethan, Mason, and Lucas; Emma, Olivia, Sophia, Ava, and Mia).
I also take into consideration naming styles of the era. In the 1920s, it was common to use –ie or –y endings on nicknames for men, not just boys. Lots of grown men were called Freddy, Tommy, Jimmie, Johnny, Timmy, Frankie, Eddy, Wally, and so forth. You don’t hear those much today, do you? Also common was the use of nicknames that bore no resemblance to the given name, like Slats, Studs, Lucky, Stretch, Fats, Porky, Babe, and Lumpy. This is particularly true in the criminal underworld; think of Bugs, Scarface, Hymie, Killer, and Snorky—all real gangsters.
But first names are a breeze compared to last names. For those, I need to consider not only the era but the likely ethnicity of the character. The Roaring Twenties was a time of heavy immigration from eastern Europe; so many people in urban centers had surnames that were Italian, Jewish, or Polish. If I’d been writing about an earlier time, the names might have skewed to German, English, Irish, and Scots. I have to also consider professions: police forces in 1920s Chicago or New York skewed toward Irish, so I’ll probably name my cop Mac or O’Toole. In fact, the cop in the book I’m currently writing is named Kevin O’Rourke. Servants in the early part of the twentieth century were often Irish immigrant or African American women, which is why the young Irish housemaid in my current book is called Ellen and the black cook is Bessie Jackson. (Unlike today, when African Americans often use names that have African, Muslim, or biblical origins, blacks in the early 20th century chose names that closely resembled those used by European-Americans.) Their employer’s name is Weidemann, a German name representing the German immigrants of an earlier generation who are now prosperous enough to afford servants.
In writing my current book, I muddled my way through several names before settling on Maddie for my main character. She was born in the 1890s in Chicago to immigrant parents from French Canada, so I gave her a French name, Madeleine, which I Americanized with a nickname to Maddie. For her Italian immigrant husband, I chose Tomasso Pastore, so she now has a multicultural name—how very American!
Another fun tool I use to help me with ideas is the on-line random name generator. This site lets me choose the gender, the ethnicity, the country, and the age of a person; then it spits out an appropriate name. So if I needed a name for a minor character who is an Australian male living in America today and in his fifties, I get . . . (drum roll) Eddie J. Adcock. Sounds good to me! Check it out at www.fakenamegenerator.com.
Some famous authors, like David Baldacci, auction the naming rights of their characters for charity, promising to use the winner’s name in their next book. It’s a nice fund-raiser, but it’s risky. I guarantee the author worries about what the winning name will be! What if he or she ends up having to use a name that doesn’t fit any characters? I’d love to auction a name for charity, but I can’t risk getting stuck with something that didn’t exist in the 1920s. It’s really more appropriate for authors who write contemporary fiction.
I explained a little of this to my friend and promised him I’d keep his name in mind for future books. But off the record, it won’t happen. His name is far too modern for a Roaring Twenties mystery.