This blog was featured on 09/01/2016
What's In A Name? A Lot

Tayari Jones on the art of naming characters.

Many aspiring memoirists often asked “Where do I start?” I always advise them to start with the story of their names. Your name really provides a quick snapshot into the context of your birth.

My name, Tayari, is a Kiswahili word meaning “she is ready” or “prepared.”

My family, by the way, is not from Kenya. We are from the American South. So right from my name, you know that I was born in the 1970s to parents who were high on post-civil rights optimism. What you don’t know from my name is anything much about the woman I am today. This is because the name is a way to tell you where I come from, but not who I am.

You can see how this is helpful for memoirists-- the exercise makes them talk about themselves without being so “I, I, I” all the time. When talking about your name you have to think about your parents and imagine what they were thinking. When a fiction writer chooses a name, you must to do so carefully, as it should be a clue to the character’s background.

Don’t underestimate “invisible” names—ones that sort of blend in with and strengthen the background of the story. (Of course there are many famous authors who take a different tack. Toni Morrison’s quirky names come to mind. Milkman! First Corinthians!) Quiet names can be workhorses in a story—not flashy but they do a lot of work. The name “Keisha” was really popular for African-American girls of my generation. Nothing says “southern belle” like a woman whose middle name is her mother’s maiden name. These names might not be fun—after all they have the banality of real life—but they can do some heavy lifting in your story.

To tighten the strings on your story, try for a little traction by making tension between the ambition of the name and the life of the character. I’ve been known to change the names of my characters once I’ve gotten to know them a little better.

In my second novel, The Untelling, the main character is Ariadne. I will admit that this is a sort of unusual name for a black girl who grew up on the southwest side of Atlanta. But really, that name didn’t come to me until I was halfway through the novel. Before that, I was calling her “Aria,” which jibed with the innovative naming we tend to favor in my hometown. But somewhere around page 200, I realized that Aria’s mom was way too serious to give her child a name so light. So I rewrote the first line of the novel to read, “Ariadne, my given name, the one that’s on my drivers’ license, is the kind of name you’re supposed to grow into.” This completely refocused the story for me, and for the reader, letting us know right up front that this about a young woman who is trying to fit her mother’s expectations. “Aria,” it turned out, was just a nickname.

Although I spend a lot of time working on my main characters, I am less cautious about the secondary folk. Mostly, I want to make sure that the other characters names have variety, so that the reader can keep them straight.

One easy rule to remember is to avoid characters whose names start with the same letter. Jessica, Janet, and Joanne will run together in the reader’s head. But keep in mind that there are also families of names that will have the same blending effect. Josh, Mike, and Rob are almost the same name both in syllables and in tone. In later drafts, I often change the name of minor characters just to add a little texture. This is not to say that you can’t be creative in naming your characters. (If it’s good enough for Toni Morrison, it’s good enough for us!)

Minor characters are actually great opportunities for quirky names that you always wanted to use. But remember, naming your characters, like naming your kids, shouldn’t be done lightly.

So, now, to you, SheWriters, how do you find your characters’ names? What comes first for you, the character or her name? And, even though this is not exactly writerly... do you like your name? Did you ever consider changing it?

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    Because I was teased mercilessly about my name (I was called X-ray, Xylophone & Zebra), I hated my name for the longest time. Not to mention that it was not a "typical" Hispanic name. I didn't appreciate the uniqueness of my name until I became an adult. So i pass this onto my characters, giving them unique names, always one with an X or a Z, as a homage to my ostracization. It's more of a personal thing than anything.

  • Brandi Ballard

    When I'm looking for a name, I got to Behind the Name. It's a great site that lets you look up names based on meaning, ethnicity, gender etc. If I have a fragile character, I may use a name that means flower or sometimes I go for the inverse, ironic meaning. There are about fifty names related to flowers on the site so you can be more subtle than using Lily or Rose (not that those aren't great names). Readers may not pick up on these meanings right away, but I think they add a level of complexity and interest.

    If I am naming a minor character, I will often go to popular names by birth year. Behind the Name lists the top 100 and the top 1,000 for most years. They also have a sister site for surnames.

    The Writerly Habit

  • Surviving the Draft

    @Gale, I never thought of looking at tombstones, but that is a great way to find names from the past.
    @Angela, I just changed a character's name after my book was typeset. I just did it yesterday!

  • Patricia A. McGoldrick

    So great to read about names for characters.
    I, especially, like the creative way you changed the woman's name to "Aria".


  • Angela Austin

    I've changed the name of characters half-way through or even at the end of a story ;-) I have books of babies' names. I search the internet for names that are appropriate by time, culture, etc. But, as you mentioned in your post, I tend to not put as much energy into my secondary characters' names...unless there are plans for those characters at a later point.

  • Brenda Jenkins Kleager

    The phone book of a major city is a fascinating place to get names also.

  • Gale Massey

    I never related to my birth name and changed it when I turned 16. I'm struggling with names in the novel I'm working on, but I have the main characters worked out, finally. Now and then I ride through the cemetery looking at names on the tombstones, names that were popular generations ago, or that are down right weird. I always sense the character before I know their name.

  • Lanita Andrews

    When I very first started trying to write fiction, I tried using unique names but found it tended to limit my vision of the character.Now, my habit is to give my characters a simple, common name so it doesn't get in the way of figuring out who my character is. Once I have a clearer picture of who they are, if appropriate, I will rename them. Usually, though, I keep the names common, so they don't get in the way for (prospective) readers.

  • Christine Lee Zilka

    I've never forgotten your suggestion to go against stereotype when naming characters, too. I named a tennis instructor in my story (which got published), "Sinclair" (I was debating between Sinclair and Tyrone). It was awesome.