Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Elspeth: The Scottish form of Elizabeth

I didn't have to look this up. I've had it memorized for years, because almost every time someone hears my name for the first time I get a puzzled look coming back at me, followed by a head tilt, followed by a hesitant "...Elizabeth?" The result is I'm very conscious of names. I don't like tricky names, I don't like tricky spelling. I was determined that all my children had very regular names. When I'm writing, I try to do the same favour for my characters.

As a reader, I find odd names jarring. When I come across one I have to stop and figure out how to pronounce it. This tends to make me cranky. If I can't figure it out, I'll ignore the name and just skim over it whenever it appears. In fact, when describing the character to someone else, I'll probably call them 'odd-named woman' or 'guy with name I can't pronounce'.

Names have changed over time, certainly. I have a character in my WiP who is in her 70s. The story takes place in 1935 - this means she was born in the 1860s. I picked a name that was popular in the 1860s. I do this for everything I write. I look at lists of popular baby names for the year of the character's birth; or in some cases, when I've written about teenagers in a plot taking place now, I simply ask my teenagers what the most popular names are in their school.

I try, simply for the sake of clarity, not to have two characters with similar sounding names - I don't want a Pam and a Dan or a Mary and a Terry. I do have two characters right now whose names start with the same letter - but they're working as a team to solve the mystery and one is known by his surname and one by his first name.

I don't name characters after people I know. I want each character to be mine, and some names have too many real-life memories attached to them. I am also hesitant to start down that rather slippery road as I know someone, sooner or later, will say "You named a character after them, but you didn't name one after me". There's also the risk that the person whose name I did use, will think the character is a portrait of them (which could be unfortunate considering I write mysteries).

Shakespeare may have been right when he had Juliet observe "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" but I can't write a character if I've given them the wrong name. It's happened.

How do you choose your characters' names? Do you care if they're odd? Have you ever gotten them wrong?

Oh, by the way, I'm not Scottish. I just have a Scottish name.


  1. I have given a character the wrong name on more than one occasion. Most have been simple and easy to fix. But the most jarring was once to my protagonist. She wouldn't cooperate. She had no personality. When I gave her the right name, she came alive. I don't hand out names that are hard to pronounce, but I often have names that are a little different, at least to me. Right now I have one character named Zia.

  2. Carol; Isn't it odd when it happens? I love that character name - and I can pronounce it. Win!

  3. Great post, Elspeth! Naming is crucial in fiction, there's no way to get around it. In my last novel (which was also my first novel lol) I couldn't settle on the MC's best friend's name. She was a minor character with a strong personality and her name mattered. I can't even remember all the trial and error ones I came up with, before deciding "Charlotte!" I love the character and love the name. She's a Charlotte through and through.

    It's so perfect when you get just the right name!!

  4. I am a maniac about naming characters! In our murder mystery weekends we get very silly - Herb Pate, Augusta Wind, etc...but in my novels and plays they mean so much. The name of one of my main characters in Feckless, my first novel, is Maura. My sister hated it - we had a big fight about it. I insisted - actually not true - it was a version of Maura - Moia - both mean 'bitter' and are Irish - this was important to me. My sister, come to think of it, also doesn't approve of the name of my cop in my series - her name is Kitty MacDonald - she suffered in school and especially in RCMP training over that one - and it isn't a short form - the thing is that her name helped make her who she is so she is keeping it. Naming is an important part of what we do - I often find that I name a character and find out later why they need that name - both with Maura and Kitty this was true. I named a character in our play - Death,the Musical - Beulah (my mother's name). Beulah was the bar keep at the Afterlife Bar & Grill - the place you go to get sorted out after you die - Beulah land is the land just outside Heaven's gate!
    I had to rename a character in my wip because I had too many ssssss... I don't like it as much but his was the name that had to be changed. He's the victim so he gets discussed alot. oh well.

  5. KarenG; There's nothing like that 'ping' when you get the right name, is there?

    Jan; I've done the funny names too - for my games. I've got a film director called Hugh Jeego and a publicist called P.R. Riter.

  6. I finally resorted to keeping a simple Excel spreadsheet so I didn't end up with a scene where Langley and Laughlin were discussing the missing Lalone. Too may 2 syllable "L" names in that one!

    I definitely try to keep the names as different as possible. Ideally, they should sound as though the characters' parents named them, not the author.

  7. Terry; What a wonderful way of expressing it! That's, perhaps, why I look at popular baby names for whatever year it is. Thanks for the giggle about Langley and Laughlin discussing Lalone.

  8. I will be facing this problem as soon as I get back to my WIP, God-willing. So this is very helpful. Thanks.

  9. Karen; There are much more important things consuming your attention right now. This is very small cheese.

  10. Hmm... names.. very interesting question. I get my characters' names from different sources. Sometimes I've simply heard a name I liked; it had a nice "ring" to it, to use a cliche. I've also been inspired by the names of people I know. In my WIP, two characters' names came from readers of my blog, who very kindly helped me choose them. I also get some names from the kinds of personalities characters have. That, too, can have a lot to do with the name I choose.

  11. Margot; How interesting that you can get names from so many different sources! I've never chosen a name based on personality - at least not consciously.

  12. I'll admit when I first saw your name it seemed, well - not "odd" but unusual. It has nice ring to it, though, and I figured it was maybe a more common name in Canada - never heard of an Elspeth here in the states. So Scottish version of elisabeth, eh? Pretty cool.

    I place great importance on character names. My Owen Fiddler novel, for instance, all the main characters' names have a an underlying meaning that the reader figures out (hopefully not until) at least halfway through the book. But that's an exceptional case, cuz Owen is a sort of parable/fairy tale kind of story. Even in more general fiction novels like I'm wiritn presently, though, I think a great deal about an appropriate name for a character and why.

    Marvin D Wilson

  13. Old Silly; It's not common in Canada either; more common over in Great Britain - but even there the streets aren't teeming with Elspeths. It would be interesting to write a parable/fable as the names there would be very significant.

  14. I have a Scottish background, but didn't know about your name being the Scottish version - very cool.

    I use baby name sites as well - but characters tend to pop into my brain with their names intact. Not sure why or how :)

  15. Unpronouncable names are very distracting when you're trying to plow through a book. I find the really impossible ones cease to be words and become symbols. I have characters who hail from other planets, I endeaver to make their names unusual yet simple to read...

    Oh, and thanks! You've reminded me that have to change a couple of characters names. I've come to a standstill on my current outline and I'm sure it's because the characters are incorrectly named.

  16. Jemi; I've had that happen too; a character arrives in my head with their name already - it's most convenient. And with your last name, I suspected the Scots background!

    Deb; Writing that type of story brings its own challenges, doesn't it? Perhaps a change of name will get the juices flowing once again.

  17. In the book I'm shopping now, the main protagonist has the last name of a guy I saw on of those Sunday talking heads. Not sure where his first name originated. The other protag was named after an old English teacher I wanted to honor. Never thought about the biology teacher that might be annoyed. Ha!

    Best Wishes Galen.
    Imagineering Fiction Blog

  18. I use so many methods to choose names. Hmm, I might have to steal your idea and post about this myself.
    Some of my characters names that are a bit odd, but that is because they are central or eastern European in origin.
    One of my characters has an alliterative name after she gets married.
    I had worked out both characters and their names. The plot called for them to get married. I wasn't sure about her married name but by then their names were fixed in my head.

    I am one of those cruel parents who inflicts unusual names on their children.
    BTW I like Elspeth as a name, all three of our daughters have names combining "th", "e" and or "el", so I guess I just like the sound combination of your name.


    Publish or Perish

  19. I like unusual names, but not too unusual. I like to be able to pronounce the name. If I can't, I'm like you I just say "that guy" and something simple while I'm reading. Unfortunately, it does tend to take a little away from the story. Great post and I love you name. It's just unique enough.

  20. Elspeth: I understand how is it to have a name that everyone knows yet you spell it a little differently. It never bothers me when my name is misspelled. In fact, I've come to expect it. If someone spells it correctly it always gets my attention. As far as naming characters in my books, I try to give them names that I like and that I think are a little different. Though, I recently realized I've used the same last name in two different books. Totally different genres, too. But still, I've got to keep a book of names or something. :) Thanks for the wonderful post. I'm so glad I happened upon your blog. :)

  21. Nice post, as usual.
    It does get confusing when two or more characters have similar sounding names. And while I'm okay with complicated or unusual names (most names are foreign names for me, in any case), names that sound similar are a no no.

  22. Galen; Why am I not surprised you took a name from a talking head?

    Al; Maybe your children will be fine with their unusual names...or not. *threatening music*

    Mason; I'm glad to discover someone else who skips over names!

    Kathi; Keeping a book of names is a good idea. I'm so glad you happened across my blog too! Welcome!

    Rayna; I agree, similar-sounding names can make things very confusing.


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