Character of the Week: A Humorous Name with Derring-Do

My husband asked me to help him with a name. He enjoys drawing and needed a name for a “headline” in his latest.

He described the character thusly: “He’s an adventurer, the kind who might go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, mid-30s in 1890 or so.”

So I jumped to the task. I looked up names on the Social Security Baby Names List, cut out those that sounded too “average Joe”, or nerdy, or “cowboy”. I sought a name that had derring-do, a name with some charm and some humor (his drawings are almost always humorous), and a name with three parts. My husband specifically wanted a full name.

I cut down the list of names to 11 names that I liked for the man, after looking at name meanings and saying the names out loud, and then I tried putting them together in my head. While the names were all used as given names in the late 1800s, some are also family names and I used them alternatingly as first, middle, or last in my examples.

You try. The names list was:

  • Oscar
  • Willie
  • Rufus
  • Roscoe
  • Mose
  • Fletcher
  • Volney
  • Esau
  • Fleming
  • Hudson
  • Judd

I tried a few name combinations out. I didn’t want to confuse him by offering him the whole list to choose from, or giving him a list of examples. I just decided to toss out a few of the names that stood out to me.

The first name combo stuck.

Rufus Fletcher Fleming

My husband loved how amusing the combo of Fletcher Fleming was, and he said he’d considered Rufus already. He didn’t even want to hear any more of the names I’d selected, because my first choice was “perfect”.

While I obviously know my husband and his tastes, that did not come into play in this naming. It was the characteristics of the character—the birth period, the derring-do, the requisite humor—that helped me discover the name that he felt was perfect. And it is the characteristics of your characters that will help you discover their perfect names as well.

Name Theory: The Word of the Day is SIMPLE

The message of this week: Keep it simple.

Sometimes simple is better. Sometimes simple is just what your story needs.

In this week’s naming, the writer kept it simple—from the description of this obviously minor character (a truck dispatcher who is not the world’s best driver), to the names the characters (all common and/or popular choices). Keeping it simple was the right choice for the writer, and probably for the story as well.

It’s a lesson worth learning, and one that was driven home yesterday when I stumbled upon another writer’s blog post entitled 5 Red Flags Your Story Needs Revision (Kristen Lamb, author of We Are Not Alone). Number 1 on her list was: If Your Story has More Characters than the Star Wars Prequels, You Might Need Revision. Her point was one that I’m not sure I’ve made before: Though your story world must be populated with co-workers, waitresses, and others who “do stuff”, these bodies do not need to be named characters. Just as in a movie they will have Policeman Number 3 and Windshield Washer, you do not need to name (or, give a backstory to) every person in your novel.

Names signify that a character is important in some way, either to the plot or to your main character.

Keep it simple. If your main character wouldn’t know the person’s name, then don’t put it in the story. (Obviously exceptions can be made for a story told in third person omniscient, but then take care to name only characters that are important to the plot.)

The same could be said about details. Keep it simple.

I once had another writer say that she always puts some detail about a character when she introduces them, like a description of how they look or how they speak.

That may sound like a good idea, but those of you who have been here a while may recall my thinking on character description: While the reader sees the character’s name repeated nearly every time they are mentioned, the description is there for color (like a set piece in a play). The reader doesn’t need to remember that your character has brown hair vs. mouse brown hair vs. blonde vs. black, unless it is important to the story. The reader does, however, need to remember which character is which (and they will envision each character in their own way, thank you very much). So while it is nice for them to be told this information, it is less important than making the character sound realistic.

So this writer puts a detail in with every first mention, but that doesn’t mean that readers will remember those details or that they will matter much if the readers doesn’t hear the lilt in the voice or isn’t reminded of Lily Potter’s green eyes every so often.

Keep it simple. Put it in if it matters, put it in if readers will care, but don’t make a big deal out of small potatoes (like middle names for every character, or even surnames for most).

Character of the Week: Elf on the Shelf Names

Fictional characters aren’t the only beings I name. I have also named one human being, many cats, at least one dog, a couple of hamsters, and, most recently, an elf.

This year my family invited an Elf on the Shelf into our home. I had seen pictures of these elves on Pinterest last year and I was enchanted with their mischief making, so this year I thought I would take a chance on inviting a potential imp into our home.

Our elf has not been naughty. In fact, he is mostly a benevolent figure who watches our mischief with a certain taint of humor in the glint of his eyes. I like him, and I hope he likes us as well.

I also hope he likes his name.

I know I should have let my son name the elf, but since his ideas on names are—shall we say—less refined than mine, I thought I would just tell him that the elf told me his name.

This was a mistake.

My son’s eyes opened wide and he bolted from his chair. “He can talk,” my son said, with the awe of true belief.

“Only to tell me his name,” I quickly mumbled.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes.

My son’s idea of a good name for a stuffed fish is Fishie, and for a stuffed snake is Snakey. In fact, we have a few Snakeys around here who sometimes have to go by Snakey One and Snakey Two and the other Snakey.

Last month, though, my son did give out some less obvious names. He rechristened a “boy” toy animal after his friend Sadie, and a “girl” animal after himself. He thought it was hilarious.

You know what I feel about Gender Bending Names.

So I named our elf. First I looked online to find what kinds of names writers have used for elves in their stories, and I looked at words that mean elf. Then I thought about what kind of name I felt an elf ought to have.

An elf should have a name that sounds a touch fantastical, one with a bit of whimsy. And I felt, rather strongly in fact, that our elf’s name should begin with a Z.

So I read through a list of Z names for boys, looking for a name that sounded fun and light, and I came down to two.

The first name I loved was Zeff, or Zeffy as I intended to call him. Zeffy the elf had just the right ring to it. But Zeff means wolf, and that just doesn’t work for my elf.

I don’t generally choose names based on their meanings, but I do let a “bad” or “wrong” meaning turn me away from names. I wouldn’t want to name my romance heroine “ugly”, or my assassin “peaceful”. Names should only be comedic in a comedy, and then only if it serves the plot in some way.

So I turned to my second choice name: Zeth. Zeth is an alternate spelling of the Hebrew name Seth, which means appointed. It was an appropriate meaning for a name chosen by mommy for the elf assigned by Santa to our family.

My son did give him a middle name: Elfie on the Shelfie. So he calls the elf Elfie and I call the elf Zeth, and we’re both happy with our name choices.


Does your family have an Elf on the Shelf? What did you name him or her?

Name Theory: Middle Names

In honor of Middle Name Pride Day I thought I should write a quick post about character’s middle names.

Do you give your characters middle names? I don’t.

I know many writers like to “know everything” about their characters. I admit knowing a lot about your characters can help you know their motivation and how they will act in various situations, but I don’t believe you need to “know everything”.

Give your character some flex room to move and grow, let him or her be a bit of a mystery to you so you can discover details along the way.

Middle names are certainly one of those details that can be discovered through the writing. Let your character tell you if their middle name is important to their story.

So far only one of my characters has had a middle name. It was never mentioned in the story because the character was teased about it and she never liked mentioning it. It is part of the reason why she went by a nickname instead of her full name, but it was a detail that wasn’t necessary for the story.

On Middle Name Pride Day, however, she may have been pressed by her bestie to reveal that her first and middle names are Calliope Jane but that you should never call her Calamity Jane (not that her friend would have understood the reference).