What’s in a Character Name?

What’s in a name? Perhaps a rose by any other name would not smell as sweet.

Consider your name.

How was it chosen? What does it mean? How does it look? How do you feel about it?

My father John shared the name with a brother of his mother. My mother’s Alta Wavalene came from her father’s youngest sister and her mother’s youngest sister. There are no Vivian’s on either branch of the family tree. Were my parents consciously striking out in a different direction?

One story I heard growing up is that Vivian was the name of my father’s first girlfriend, and he liked it. So, does this reflect my father’s dominance or my mother’s confidence?

Vivian means lively, and likes bright or vivid colors. The latter definitely applies, and I like to think the former does as well. As for appearance, Vivian is all spikes and angles, especially when written in caps: VIVIAN. Hmmmm. No comment. But I do know I felt out-of-place among the Sharons and Shirleys and Barbaras. As a child, I wanted a nickname and it was never forthcoming. As an adult, I like that I have seldom come across another Vivian, and only an Italian chef ever called me Vi.

Consider character names.

Your characters’ names are as important to them as yours is to you. Give them some thought. As with everything, there are books out there to help. My personal favorite is Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon. For one thing, it starts with an overview of things to consider. In brief, and paraphrased, the ten guidelines are

  1. Capture the persona
  2. Consider heritage, personality, and trade/profession
  3. Make the name harmonious
  4. Choose names consistent with time period (The Social Security Administration is good for US names)
  5. Consider the character’s social status
  6. Use nicknames
  7. Vary the names of characters
  8. Be aware of your genre
  9. If you choose a name that breaks the rules, make a point of it
  10. Avoid names that others have made famous

Your character’s name is the usual introduction to the reader. Lydia is harder than Nora. Cynthia is more upscale than Bertha. Bart is stronger than most two-syllable male names.

In deciding on names, avoid not only the beginnings but the endings. Alex, Alice, Amy, and Andrew will confuse readers and turn them off. At the same time, choose nicknames and/or endearments with care. I recently critiqued a manuscript in which William was Billy to the family, Victoria was Vickie,
Margaret was Maggie, Susan was Suzie, and endearments were honey and sweetie. Not a big deal, but if the reader notices, it’s too much.

I like Character Naming because of its breadth, and because it separates names by ethnic roots and meaning. But it isn’t the only book out there. Indeed, you can go to a local telephone directory and mix first and last names.

book covers of Character Naming by Sherrilyn Kenyon and The Secret Universe of Name by Roy Feinson
Character Naming and The Secret Universe of Names

And if you are interested in the humorous side of writing, consider these:

book covers of The Terrible Meaning of Names by Justin Cord Hayes and Don't Name Your Baby by David Narter
The Terrible Meaning of Names and Don’t Name Your Baby

That way you won’t inadvertently name two friends Barbara Smith and Barbara Morton and end up with BS and BM!

Book covers of four books on baby names you can use as character names
More books on baby names

Consider perception.

Consider the article “13 Surprising Ways Your Name Affects Your Success” by Maggie Zhang and Jenna Goudreau.  The main points of their article are highly relevant to writers. If your name is easy to pronounce, people will favor you more. If your name is common, you are more likely to be hired. If your name is uncommon, you are more likely to be a delinquent. If you have a white-sounding name, you’re more likely to get hired. If your name is closer to the beginning of the alphabet, you might get into a better school. If your last name is closer to the end of the alphabet, you’re more likely to be an impulse spender. You are more likely to work in a company that matches your initials. Using your middle initial makes people think you’re smarter and more competent. If your name sounds noble, you are more likely to work in a high-ranking position. If you are a boy with a girl’s name, you are more likely to be suspended from school. If you are a woman with a sexually ambiguous name, you are more likely to succeed. Men with shorter first names are overrepresented in the c-suite. Women at the top are more likely to use their full names (e.g., Deborah, Cynthia).
And one final point for authors: think carefully before giving your main characters long or hyphenated name. You are going to be typing those name a gazillion times!

What are your favorite character names?

Writing Life: Exercise Improves Creativity


My frequent mentions of walking before breakfast while at Nimrod may have led people to believe that I enjoy exercise. Not so. Walking at Nimrod is necessary because so many hours of the day are spent butt-in-chair. Fortunately, it was also lovely.

view of Cowpasture River near Nimrod Hall during walk
Cowpasture River near Nimrod Hall during my morning exercise
I have a neighbor who walks every day and works out at the fitness center several times a week. My guess is that he is somewhere north of 85. Another neighbor asked, “Do you exercise so much in order to live a long time?” His answer was, “I exercise so much in case I live a long time!” That is my attitude toward exercise: I do it because it’s good for me. True confession: I should exercise more. Although I do some stretching and some strength training, my favorite form of exercise is walking, most frequently in the park near my house. There is a spacious paved loop that is very popular, but I hit the pavement only after heavy rains.
Paved walking loop through the woods where exercise sparks creativity
Paved walking loop through the woods
Usually I take a path through the woods. There are several of them, often running parallel to the paved loop, but also criss-crossing the ridge, following the fence line, and veering down to the creek.
trail or path through woods
Path through the woods where I feed my creativity
One thing I enjoy about the park is following the seasons there. In spring there are dogwoods and lady slippers. Right now I can enjoy the remains of the lady slippers (i.e., the leaves) and crows foot. The partridge berries are just starting, and I’ll be able to track them as the come on. And always there are ferns.
lady slipper and crows foot
Lady slipper and crows foot
partridge berries during exercise to improve creativity
Partridge berries
ferns during exercise to improve creativity
The main intersection of my writing life and exercise is thinking of story starters. For example, last January, walking in a nature preserve, I noticed my shadow on the snow, and thought of the Grim Reaper in winter.
shadow on snow looks like grim reaper in winter, morning exercise
Grim Reaper in winter
This led to the story starter on how what the Grim Reaper does in winter might differ from summer.


There is a ton of research (ton being a precise quantitative term!) indicating that both sleep and exercise increase creativity. Some of us are more adept at the former than the latter—but try to get enough of both. I won’t cite specific studies because this blog can’t go on forever and because the information is so readily available in psychology textbooks and on-line.

Writers who exercise.

I do not know of writers who directly attribute their writing success/productivity to exercise. If you know such examples, please post a comment. But I do know successful writers who exercise. Stephen King is one example.
book cover of On Writing by Stephen King
Stephen King is one writer who exercises
But as a case in point, I’ll cite Sue Grafton. Grafton was born in 1940 and has now completed A through X in her highly successful alphabet mystery series.  She has a very regular routine: up at 6:00, walk 3 miles, shower and breakfast by 9:00, write 2 pages, break at 11:30 for lunch, done by 1:30, and exercise again (either more walking or weights, jogging and/or swimming). She has a home gym which she calls a “Jill” because it is composed of 15 Lady Paramounts machines, constructed specifically for women. She eats dinner at 6:00 and is asleep at 9:00, hoping to get in touch with her Shadow side during sleep. You can see many photos of Sue Grafton and her living/working spaces on her website, including a picture of her Jill.
book cover of
E is for Exercise? Sue Grafton exercises several hours every day

Back to exercise.

The evidence says exercise is beneficial for everything from weight loss to memory loss, energy to mood enhancement, heart health to maintaining hearing, cancer to strong bones. . . . And then there’s creativity! In short, exercise seems to be a silver bullet for quality of life. I’ve almost talked myself into getting serious here!

Does exercise improve your creativity?

Do you know writers who directly attribute their writing success/productivity to exercise?