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Donna Rewolinski on Character Names

Donna Rewolinski is the author of the Novice Mystery series. You can find out more about her on her website, or by clicking here, read her last post here, and buy her books here.

What’s in a name? Everything to an author. We spend a great deal of time crafting a character’s name and their attributes. Are they male or female? Hair color, eye color, height, weight, past profession, current profession, and so on.  But there is so much more.

Authors draw their characters on previous experiences with people or people they’d like to meet. They may choose one person or a combination of people to become a character. Naming that person is important and can take many forms.  Some select a name that reflects an ethnicity, is fun to say, or easy to remember, but whatever the reason, characters are deeply personal to their author. We create them and put them out into the world for others to read about. We want to evoke a response for each one, whether it’s positive or negative.

Names such as Sherlock Holmes, Miss Jane Marple, Hercule Poirot, or Harry Potter, you realize they’re synonymous to their authors.

Book covers from the Novice Mystery series by Donna Rewolinski

However, their attributes are equally as important. Jane Marple would never be found drunk or Hercule Poirot would never be a Nazi supporter. Harry Potter would never kill his friends to steal their powers or advance his. We come to know main characters through the story and develop a sense of them as a person. We look to have our characters grow or reveal something about themselves or their backstory as the plot(s) move forward. I know my favorites are personalities that I would like to be friends with or visit the places they do. When the story ends, I feel as if a friend has moved away and it maybe a while before I hear from them again, if ever.

 The protagonist, whether a seasoned professional or an amateur that ends up in any situation, at the core of their being, is a good person trying to help.

As for the antagonist, they can be a cold hearted sociopath or psychopath with no redeeming qualities or can be like Ebenezer Scrooge. The name Scrooge can be used to describe someone that is stingy, cheap, and obsessed with money, yet in the end of Charles Dickens’ story reveals a change or rather the exposure of positive attributes of kindness and generosity.

How I name characters

The main characters in my Novice Mystery series are Dan and Karen Novice. First I looked for names that would be appropriate for their age and were popular at the time they were born. However, I like to use the meaning or origins of a name for anyone in my books.

I went through several versions of names.

Daniel means “God is my judge”.  Dan’s attributes are that he’s honest, loyal, smart, and loves Karen deeply. He would never stab someone in the back or have an affair.

Karen means, “Pure” or “Clear”. Of course this was before the name Karen became associated with the meme of “Entitlement and demanding beyond the scope of what’s considered normal”. Karen loves Dan very much. Her mind works differently than Dan’s. She’s more in tune with people and has a different interpretation to a person or situation. Often she has the clear answer to what’s happened.

Most novels, especially mysteries are an ensemble of characters and what they bring to the story. Some are an aid, others a hindrance, or others trying to protect their secrets from be revealed. 

Playing with the names

I love to play with names. Whether it’s various versions of people I know, such as in Novice Mystery – Mexico, the last name Carpenter is the anglicized version of Zimmerman, someone I know.

Worksheets with potential character names on it

In my first book, Novice Mystery – Ireland, one of the characters is named Kathleen. She states that the victim’s first name is Arthur. In the book, Kathleen says, “Arthur is a British name, meaning “Strong as a bear’. I think he was a bear, not to consider other’s feelings.” It’s an emotional outburst. Was his name the cause of his demise? Could be or it could be a ‘red herring’ to lead the reader to draw a conclusion.

My upcoming novel, Novice Mystery – France, I name a character Honore, but will he live up to the name and be honorable? That remains to be seen.

Also, important are the inanimate characters in a novel. It can be a food, a beverage, or a place, real or invented. When I read the Louise Penny, Chief Inspector Gamache novels, I want to sit in Oliver’s Bistro in the fictious village of Three Pines, in front of the roaring fire on a cold, winter’s day, and eating what’s offered on the menu. I even want a licorice pipe and I don’t like the taste of licorice. That town, those businesses, and the products they offer are characters that envelop us in the story. They’re as important and require as much effort on the part of the author to make them real, have a name, and be as inviting as the human ones. Authors put much thought into naming all characters, who they are, who they become, where they are, and why we should be interested in any of it. The worst novels are those when at the end, I don’t remember it.

There’s everything in a name to an author.

This Post Has 25 Comments

  1. Avatar

    You’re absolutely right, Donna. Names of characters are every bit as important as names of real people–maybe even more so. When writing my novels, naming characters is one of the most sacred tasks. It’s also one of the most fun. When I read, I”m always looking for the symbolic meanings of names. That’s part of the enjoyment of the reading experience.

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      Donna Rewolinski

      Thank you. You’re right about the symbolism. It can be spot on or the complete opposite.

  2. Margaret Mizushima
    Margaret Mizushima

    Donna, I loved this post on naming characters! It’s interesting to use the name’s meaning to help develop character personality traits. I often use a baby name book, but not in this way, so it gave me some new ideas. Since my books are set in the American West, I usually try to use names with a western flair for my characters. Once I sat through a TV rodeo show just so I could record the names of the cowboys. 🙂

    1. Avatar
      Donna Rewolinski

      It’s funny how our characters take on a life. I think readers appreciate the effort.

  3. Avatar
    Sharon Michalove

    I love finding out authors choose character names. Mine frequently tell me what their names are.

    1. Avatar
      Donna Rewolinski

      Our characters are their own person and we honor that.

  4. Christine DeSmet
    Christine DeSmet

    The sheriff in my Fudge Shop Mystery series has a very ethnic Norwegian Wisconsin name. A year or go or so, a middle-grade teacher in California contacted me because he had the same name! We loved the coincidence. He ended up having a middle-grade writer friend of mine speak to his class from Chicago via Zoom. Names are very fun for writers and we do labor over them, and often enough we do end up with names that somebody in the world already has. It’s a conversation starter.

    1. Avatar
      Donna Rewolinski

      How fun is it to find someone with the same name. I used the last name Lynch in my first book, Novice Mystery – Ireland and heard about it’s use from my husband’s sister. Lynch is her married name

  5. GP Gottlieb
    GP Gottlieb

    I either base character’s names on people I’ve met, or the names appear as if the characters had turned to me and introduced themselves!

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      Donna Rewolinski

      I love this!. I have very animated conversations with my characters in my car while driving to and from work.

  6. Avatar

    How wonderful to have a police officer as a close source! Names are tricky sometimes. I didn’t realize I was in love with the letter M until I wrote my first novel. Over half the characters had first or last names that began with M!

    1. Avatar
      Donna Rewolinski

      I had a thing going with the letter K for first names in my first draft of my first novel until someone in a writer’s critique group said they were getting confused. I ended up having to pick the characters that I felt were really a “K” name

  7. Laurie Buchanan
    Laurie Buchanan

    Donna — It’s always interesting to learn how other authors do things. Thank you for sharing your naming technique.

    I’ve read both of your previous books in this series (Ireland and Mexico), and I’m looking forward to Novice Mystery – France!

  8. Avatar
    Donna Rewolinski

    Thanks for the kind words. I love writing about characters with unique names and have the reader guess the character of the character.

  9. Avatar
    Avanti Centrae

    Thanks for sharing this Donna. I agree that there’s much to a name! Maddy Marshall, the name of the heroine in my VanOps thriller series, is a play on two things – she’s easily angered and is into martial arts.

    1. Avatar
      Donna Rewolinski

      How cool. No silly, frilly name for a butt kicking character.

  10. Sharon Lynn
    Sharon Lynn

    I do a full class on names in my character development course because they’re so important. Names tell you about family, tradition, region, religion, they hold magic, AND function as identification. Thank you for the insights into your process!

    1. Avatar
      Donna Rewolinski

      Yes! Right! Names help a reader with being in place with the story and the feeling of the book.

  11. Sheila Lowe
    Sheila Lowe

    I agree with everyone above, names are uber important. You mentioned Harry Potter, which made me think of Voldemort. When you say the name, it immediately evokes the evil character. Same with Darth Vader. Wouldn’t be the same if his name was Dan Smith, would it?!

  12. Avatar
    Donna Rewolinski

    So true. Characters become part of our dialogue and evoke feelings and emotions.

  13. Tracey Phillips
    Tracey Phillips

    Totally agree, Donna! I take my time naming my characters too. For example, the names Wilhelmina and Jonathan, the lovers in my Karissa Knight books, were chosen for characters of the same names in Dracula by Bram Stoker. I wanted names of lovers who had defeated evil together. Lovers who had been immortalized, both literally and fictionally.

    1. Avatar
      Donna Rewolinski

      What great names. Dracula is one of my all time favorite books to re-read.

  14. Avatar
    John A Hoda

    Naming characters are fun. I sometimes use the first name of a person in my study group with the last name of another member, like Sue Tournier or Pamela Krausse and then wait for them to come across their names in the exercise we are working on.

    1. Avatar
      Donna Rewolinski

      It is fun to use names of people you know. I try to find the meaning of the name and translate it into the language of whatever country I’m writing about.

  15. joyribar

    Naming characters is one of my favorite pastimes when I begin drafting a new story. I just find it playful and entertaining. Sometimes, the character’s name just shows up from the Muse and sometimes and I hash over names before I find one that fits. I agree with you, Donna. There is much to consider in choosing a name and good authors really work at it. Congratulations on Novice: France. Looking forward to reading it.

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