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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What's in a Name?

Have you ever wondered how the names of your characters affect someone's perception of them?

I read a book recently where every character's name started with the letter "J": John, James, Jerry, Jane, Janet... By the time I was a few chapters into the book, I'd become confused with the similar-sounding names and found it greatly changed my image of them - they all started to look alike in my mind until they melted into two characters, one male and one female.

When I see an ensemble cast in a bestselling series, I notice how dissimilar their names are. Take the Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris and the resulting television series spinoff, True Blood, for instance. There's Eric, Bill, Sam, Alcide, Jason, Lafayette, Hoyt and Terry... The women are Sookie, Tara, Arlene, Jessica, Pam, Holly, Nan, Debbie... The very different names allow you to easily separate the characters in your mind's eye and prevents confusion.

Thanks to the Internet, I use several resources for both first names and surnames.

A lovely way for me to find last names is through the Surname Database at By clicking on "Index" and a letter, I can view scores of last names and read about their origins and meanings. I might want some characters to be ethnic and others to be typical American. When I am searching for a last name for a new character I am introducing, I try to think of the names I've already used and pick a letter that is quite different. This ensures that I am selecting something entirely different as I scroll through the list of names.

There are dozens of websites for first names. One I use quite often is I can click on Girl Names or Boy Names and scroll through them, clicking through to view their meanings.

My last three books have Irish characters and by googling "Irish baby names" I found, which allows you to select Girls Names or Boys Names or view by the first letter of the name. There are similar sites for almost every country.

And by searching for "Girl Name" or "Boy Name" followed by a year, you can view the most popular names of that year. This was especially useful to me when writing about Ireland in 1839.

I've also heard of some authors visiting cemetery websites, especially if they contained graves that were from a specific period, such as the Revolutionary or Civil War. One horror author said she frequently visits cemetery websites from the Transylvania region and finds perfect names for her gothic series. A great place to get started is

If you're a writer, how do you find the names for your characters, both major and supporting? If you're a reader, how do the names affect your image of them?

p.m.terrell is the award-winning, internationally acclaimed author of more than 15 books. Her latest, Vicki's Key, is a finalist in the 2012 International Book Awards and a nominee for the 2012 USA Best Book Awards. Her next book, Secrets of a Dangerous Woman, will be released this fall. For more information, visit