Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.


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Usually a character's name just comes to me, but that's not happening this time. I don't know where to start. What should I do?

The pairing of name and character can seem like a mysterious process, even to the writer who hasn’t struggled with this in the past. The perfect name may simply appear with character or it may come while drafting the fiction. While such gifts can be lovely, you’re not out of luck if you have to start a search.

Name choices need as much believability as every other detail in your fiction. Think about your character’s background and ethnicity. What name would your character’s parents have chosen? The son of a miner in eastern Pennsylvania probably won’t go by the name Percy. He’s more likely to be a John or a Nick. That twenty-something socialite born to money on the Upper East Side of Manhattan? Perhaps Vivian or Serena. (And don’t forget last names. Astor or a Mortimer might work for that socialite.)

Names roar in and out of style. Check the Social Security Administration’s website to see choices—both popular and not—based on the year of birth. Any list of names can be great inspiration. There are plenty of books and on-line databases for parents-to-be that writers can explore, too. (A quick search of “baby names” will bring up hours worth of links to browse.) Phone books and company directories are other good sources.

Also, consider your character’s personality. You don’t want to be too straightforward: a blissful character named Joy, a botanist named Daisy, a runner named Rush. Underlying meaning isn’t always the best choice either. Sometimes the writer invests more in this than the reader. Still, a hearty, practical name like Jane might fit a character with the same traits.

While we can’t choose what our parents name us, we can certainly have our say after the fact. The same is true for your characters. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby features Gatsby, a man with a past. The name Gatsby rings with just the right sense of adventure and upper crust living he’s spent much of his life scheming to attain, certainly more so than his given name, James Gatz. In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Good Country People,” the main character is dour. She legally changed her given name, Joy, to Hulga, a name that makes her mother think of “the broad blank hull of a battleship.” And some characters go by nicknames. In Nelson Algren’s novel The Man With the Golden Arm, Frankie Majcinek is called Frankie Machine because of his skill at dealing cards.

Think of some of the great character names in fiction: Randall McMurphy and Nurse Ratched from Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Spiros Antonapoulos from Carson McCullers’ novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and the title character in Junot Diaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. A touch of flair can make a name truly memorable.