Sunday, June 27, 2010


by Earl Staggs

I’m talking about naming the women in my writing life, of course. The women in my personal life, meaning my wife, two daughters, and two granddaughters, all have names chosen long ago. The problem I often have is choosing names for the females in my writing life, the ones in my stories. It could be because I’m only an average man with adequate intelligence at best and, therefore, limited in my understanding of women.

Names for my male characters, for some reason, are easier. As soon as I envision them and the stories they appear in, they let me know what their names should be. Only once have I made a major change in a male character’s name. The protagonist in my novel MEMORY OF A MURDER began life as Benjamin Masterson. I originally saw him as a worldly, well-educated, scholarly man. About halfway through the first draft, however, he let me known he was more of a down-to-earth, everyday kind of guy. I changed his name to Adam Kingston. He was happy with the change which, of course, made our working relationship a better one.

In the same novel, there is an important secondary character. She’s a homicide detective working the same case as Adam. Their initial meeting is not a friendly one. Adam is a former FBI agent, and she doesn’t care for FBI agents. Adam also has psychic gifts, and she thinks all psychics are quacks and con men. As you might guess, they wind up working together and, little by little, their relationship warms. Romance? Maybe.

To stand toe to toe with Adam, she had to be tough. For a friendship, possibly leading to a romantic thing, she also had to be feminine and attractive. After all, I couldn’t have my friend Adam getting interested in a frumpy little troll with bug eyes, a big nose, and the sex appeal of a fence post. My problem was coming up with a name for her that would imply tough cop, yet also have a ring of femininity, charm, and. . .you know.

I went through a book listing names in many ethnic groups and nationalities. Nothing clicked. I visited web sites offering the same. Still no click.

Then one day my wife’s car broke down. I didn’t know any mechanics, but a friend suggested hers. She handed me his business card. His name was Brendan McCord. As soon as I saw the name, I heard a giant CLICK! Bells and whistles sounded. A rainbow appeared on the horizon. Firecrackers boomed over my head. Pastel colored gazelles danced all around me. I had the name for my female character.

I dropped the “n” from the end of his first name and changed the “d” at the end of his last name to a “t” and her name became Brenda McCort. It was perfect. The first name, to me, had a feminine quality, and the last name struck me as just right for a cop who could be tough when necessary.

And that’s how I arrived at my foolproof system for naming the women I write about. All I have to do is wait for bells, whistles, rainbows, firecrackers and gazelles.

As for understanding women, I’m still working on that.

Earl Staggs. . .on a sweltering Sunday in Fort Worth


Mark Troy said...

Hey Earl,

Great idea naming characters after your auto mechanic. Here's the source for your next heroine. His name is Leon Sevcek and he keeps my Ford Ranger humming. So I'm thing maybe Lea or Leona. Not sure what you'll do with Sevcek, though. Anyway, I can't wait to see her in you next novel. Maybe Leon will take a copy for an oil change.

Terry Odell said...

I found a used boarding pass in the seat pocket when I was taking a trip. The name screamed "character alert."

Another time, I'd named a character and getting off a plane, I saw one of the greeters holding a card with my character's name on it. I wanted to hang around to see what the "real" guy looked like!

Helen Ginger said...

I do ponder over names and sometimes change them mid-book. I have to keep tossing names into the pot until I have the perfect one, so my poor characters often have several names until I hit on the one that fits them perfectly.

Unknown said...

Names are so incredibly (and sometimes ridiculously) integral to characters. I inevitably end up changing half a dozen character names in every story before I get them right. But when I *do* get them right, they sing.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

I use a baby name book. But, still, naming female characters is very hard for me as certain names in my mind automatically have certain connotations.

Earl Staggs said...

Mark, I'll make Leona Sevcek the star in my next book. That should get you a front end alignment in addition to the oil change.

Earl Staggs said...

Thanks to everyone who stopped by. It's good to know I'm not the only one who labors over getting the perfect name for characters. To the question, "Where do you get character's names?" looks like the best answer is, "Anywhere we can."

Jean Henry Mead said...


When my publisher went out of business I had an orphaned mystery novel and had to change the names of my women protagonists from Dora to Dana and Shirley to Sarah to sell the series to a new publisher, but every now and then Dora creeps back into the plot when I'm least expecting her. :)

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

"waiting for bells, whistles, rainbows, firecrackers and gazelles." Earl! I love this. And only you, m'dear, would be able to put this together. Now, as far as understanding women? You just keep writing your wonderful writing and leave all the worrying about understanding to someone else. There IS no understanding women, and we like it that way.

Sylvia Dickey Smith said...

Love the post about naming characters, Earl. Sometimes a name hits you and you just have to go with it! Sometimes I struggle with a name and then sometimes a name just jumps in my head as i write. When that happens--I know the name is leading me further into the plot development. Happened yesterday when writing Boo.