Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Conference Archives 2010: What's in a Name?

ACFW...here we come...er, not really for some of us. 

I'm reliving 2010 conference through the MP3 set. The audio sets are expensive, but well-worth it and I like to cheer myself with the reminder that I wouldn't be able to hear "all" the speakers in person anyhow. 

Lately I've been enjoying Dennis Hensley. I was thrilled to find he is also a yearly speaker at Writing for the Soul conference, so I hope to download more of his audios.

One thing I've been pondering lately is the renaming of some of my characters.  It took a critiquer to notice I broke one of the cardinal rules of naming characters.  I have too many sound-alike names.  From Jessalyn to Jared to Josiah, I was entranced with "J" names and they fluttered through my story. 

Pondering name changes, I began listening to Dennis Hensley's audio entitled "Mastering Structure, Symbols, 3D Characters..." Let me tell you taking notes on some of these will result in a cramped hand and lots of rewinds to catch the "good bits."

Here are some of the different types of names, according to Hensley:

1) Symbolic names:

Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird comes quickly to mind.  Finch and mockingbirds both being small and vulnerable birds.  Finch was also Harper Lee's maiden name.  His name shows the strength of the seemingly small individual.

Literature is stuffed with religiously symbolic characters, like Jim Casy whose initials and character traits make obvious John Steinbeck's purpose in creating him.  Or like Evangeline in Uncle Tom's Cabin who heads up the T.G.T.L. club ("too good to live") along with Beth from Little Women and other favorites too numerous to name.

Baby namer is my favorite site for finding character names, but I'm sure there are loads more out there.

2) Ethnic names:

Behind the Name is a great site if you are looking for the history of a name and its origin.

My novel's main character is exiting a cult. In researching I found that certain names are popular within this cult.

Would your character have a name that's behind the times? Perhaps reading literature from the appropriate time period or country would help you find new name choices.

Pippi Longstocking is particularly Australian, the reader immediately associates her name with a location.

I think its important to be careful that we are being faithful to the ethnicity of our character, but not promoting ethnic stereotypes.

3) Regional names:

OK, the first thought that comes to mind here is Jim-Bob Duggar and Billy-Bob Thornton.  The viewer is not shocked to learn that either man is from the Southern states. I'm a New Yaw-ker and I'm trying to think of New England names.  Anyone help me out here?

Adding last name always works great for emphasis.  The more of our name our mother used the longer our grounding sentence might be.

What are some of your favorite names from literature (or life)? How did you name the main character in your current WIP?


Wendy Paine Miller said...

This is hysterical...I just changed the name of one of my characters per the advice of my agent.

Names are important to me, so I put a lot of thought into my selection.
~ Wendy

Julia M. Reffner said...


I agree. I really enjoy naming my characters. I'm so excited for your agent news!

Angie Dicken said...

I LOVE symbolic names! And I also love old English names...especially the queens. As you can tell...my only daughter is Elizabeth Jane...but the meaning is God is my oath, He is gracious...and that is perfect for my fourth child, my only girl, and I had a miscarriage before I was pregnant with her...okay, that was really long explanation!
I like to find out what names mean, and I always wonder when I read.
Thanks for the food for thought. :)

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Fun post, Julia. :) Well thought out. I hadn't picked up on Atticus FINCH and Mockingbird.
My heroine's name actually just came to mind. This story popped into my mind at a couple's retreat (God-inspired, I'm sure), along with the bare bones of the story. For the other names I have tried to find names appropriate to the era they would have been born in. I am also using a symbolic name for one of my minor characters. Thanks for the post and for "giving permission" to change names if necessary. :)

Julia M. Reffner said...


I love British names, too. And big on symbolism. My daughter is Elizabeth Rebecca and I picked it from the meaning, too...and during my pregnancy the biblical account of Elizabeth's pregnancy kept coming up and I just knew that was the right name for my daughter. Now, I wrote a book :) Thanks for sharing about your daughter, I love hearing those stories. :)

Anonymous said...

Oh gals, I just love those old English names! Such a fun post, Wendy (hope your traveling is safe)

My heroine in my CR's name is Eisley Honora Jenkins - there is a tradition in her family that the oldest grandson and granddaughter are named after each grandparent. So... the oldest grandchildren must carry on the family names. It works out great because Eisley is of British decent and Honora is of Irish decent (both culture are represented in the series)

My heroine in my historical Appalachian's name is Laurel - to represent the flowering bushes that are so prevalent in this part of the world. They are also beautiful but resilient (like Laurel)

Okay...break's over. Gotta get back to work.

Mary Vee Writer said...

I'm on my break toom, Pepper, so I'll jot down my thought<
I hadn't considered the importance of last name AND good linking middle names. So many books, (including mine) focus on first name. I need to give the poor thing a good last name that fits...maybe add some great middle names.
Thanks for ths post:)

Joanne Sher said...

I had to rename my MC in my current WIP because I (erm) stupidly gave a Caananite a Hebrew name. OOPS?

I ALWAYS look up the meaning of names when I choose, and even if I don't share with the readers, I allow that meaning to be a part of the character's personality/psyche.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Great points, Julia! One of the iconic names from literature for me is Anne of Green Gables. "That's Anne with an E" :)

Julia M. Reffner said...


Wow, interesting that you found your idea at a marriage retreat. What a neat "God connection." Thanks for stopping by.


I LOVE the names you chose. Especially Laurel. Beautiful & resilient--what a great name to match the character.


I tend not to think about the last name as much either. Although in this story I had to be really conscious of it because there aren't a lot of different last names in the area my story takes place in.


Oopps..I'm guessing that can happen easily. It must be hard to research the older names. I love that you find the meaning first and then let that influence your character.


Ah, yes, we share a love for the great Miss Shirley. Safe travels to you :)