Let’s Talk with Terry Odell

What’s in a Name?

Terry Odell

WIAN_digital_200x300Naming characters has always been a problem for me. I seem to fall into ruts, using the same names over and over. In fact, in my book, What’s in a Name?, I named three characters “Hank” and the editor never caught it. It wasn’t until I got the rights back, and went through the book using a system I learned from the late Jeremiah Healy, that I discovered the mistake. These were all minor characters, and I didn’t get mail from readers, so maybe they didn’t notice. However, since then, I’ve made a point of tracking all my named characters.  It’s very simple. I create a table with the letters from A-Z for last names, and another one for first names. When I name a character, I fill in the slots in the table. When I need a name, I look to make sure I don’t have too many names starting with that letter.

But it’s coming up with the names in the first place that challenges me. From time to time, I’ll post a “help me” plea on Facebook, and get suggestions that way. A lot of those who offer to help want to know all sorts of things about the character first, such as age and ethnicity. In this melting pot we live in, a real live person’s name might not match their heritage, however. People change their names for professional reasons. A woman might take her husband’s name when she marries. When people of my parents’ generation came to the US, often their names were changed into simpler ones at their point of entry. So, a name may or may not reflect the background of a person, but someone reading a book gets a visual based on the name of the character.

Case in point. I recently read a book set in Italy, and there was a prominent character named Fabio. My gut reaction was why would the author do that? It might be a common enough name in Italy, but that’s a name with an immediate image and impression, and if it doesn’t fit the character, your readers are probably not going to accept that your character doesn’t look like “the” Fabio. In fact, odds, are, they’re going to be thinking of the cover model instead of your character.

Who would you picture if you saw the name Keisha? My daughter invited a friend with that name over to the house when she was in high school. Would it surprise you at all to see she was a blue-eyed blonde?

You also don’t want names that look or sound the same. Reading is a visual experience, and readers tend to go quickly over names, so having Mick, Mack, and Mike in a book will confuse them. In fact, it’s recommended that you don’t use the initials of your main character(s) for anyone else in the book. Not always possible, but it’s another thing to consider.

I’ve been working on a new romantic suspense series, which means I have a lot of new characters to name. I checked my chart and realized I’d used Tanya, so the character I’d planned to name Tina needed a name change. I decided on Rena. So far so good. But then my hero needed a name for his horse, and I named it Reno without checking my chart first. After all, it was a horse, not a person. But Reno and Rena? Nope. My cowboy now rides Zephyr. And to add another layer of complication, the “Rena” is named after someone I know by that name, but she pronounces it “Renae”. Readers, however would probably “hear” Rena as Rina, which then rhymes with the heroine’s name of Sabrina. For me, names are always in flux.


I’ve got two prizes this time. One winner will get a copy of What’s in a Name? (the new version, not the one with 3 Hanks!), and another will get to name a character in my new book.

What’s your take on character names? Any books where the names were stumbling blocks?

Name a Character/Win a Book 

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