Voldemort or Gizmo? Ashley or Stumpy? The writer decides!

My sister adopted two rescue dogs years ago. Gizmo and Peyton. I’ve asked her, Why didn’t you give them new names? As a writer, one of the most fun – and challenging – parts of developing your novel is naming characters.

In the dog instance, I’d have suggested Attila and Voldemort. I kid, dear sister, I kid! Her actual response regarding new dog names was this: they’ve already been through trauma, and I don’t want to add confusion to trauma, or make them feel that they’re bad.

Awww. You’re feeling a little misty right now, aren’t you?

Personally, I think the dogs hear blah blah BLAH blah blah, and the BLAH with emphasis indicates a name. Or perhaps a Milkbone.

Just try not to rescue this dog. Too late! I already called and I'm naming him Muffin.

Just try not to rescue this dog. Too late! I already called and I’m naming him Muffin.

My sister’s reasoning reflects her character. Compassionate. Sweet. Generous. And if you mess with me or my family I’ll unleash the power of Voldemort on your sorry a**.

Names, or course, reflect your character and the book’s tone. You can have three old men drinking morning coffee together at the local café. One man is Stumpy. And that works. It speaks to the size and quality of the town, and the kind of guy who might have a nickname Stumpy. Cliché: a retired farmer who lost his arm in a machine. Character twist: a lawyer. Humor: the town’s mayor, Mayor Stumpy.

Quirk has its limits. Unless the tone is absurdity, or you’re writing a picture book, you shouldn’t name the trio Stumpy, Lumpy, and Grumpy.

My writer friend quoted her agent: No more than two quirky names per book. Every rule was made to be broken, but he has a point.

In my forthcoming novel, The Graham Cracker Plot, I have pages of notes with possible character names. I spent days at my job, testing the names in my head. We had conversations, my characters and me. I asked a lot of questions. Why are you so rude to your mother? What’s your favorite food? Who’s your hero?

At work, I looked at clients and checked my character names against their names. What’s your name? I’m hoping, Ashley, please be an Ashley because you look like my Ashley.

My Ashley says, Linda.

So where do you work? Please say thrift store!

Ashley/Linda says, I’m a pharmacy tech.

Two strikes.

Ultimately, I used a typical, popular name from the late 1980s-1990 for the least typical character. My spunky, sassy heroine has a princess name, a name she dislikes and ditches in favor of a nickname. Mom doesn’t have a name at all. Just Mom, which says a lot about the relationship between my heroine and her mother. Dad has a special name, which says also says a lot about the relationship between my heroine and her father.

My writer-friend Angie Johnson almost always finds a way to slip “Margaret” into her stories. My writer-friend Rachael Hanel hit the jackpot. In her memoir, her father digs graves and maintains cemeteries. His real-life nickname: Digger. Digger! It’s perfect and true.

(And a plug for Racheal: The Barnes & Noble in Mankato, Minnesota, will host a book launch event with author Rachael Hanel for her new memoir We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter on Thursday, April 4th at 6:30 PM.)

Test your character names. Say them in a sentence (Sherry shouted to shovel the driveway.) Picture them reacting to a crisis. (Edith froze with terror as Attila the dog chased the kids.) How would it sound if she’s paged on a store intercom? (Clean up in aisle 14. Antoinette Rousseau, clean up in aisle 14.)

You’ve got to test drive a lot of cars before settling on a 1994 Corolla or a 2002 Audi or a new Ford F-150 pickup truck. Personally, I’d get the 1994 Corolla. It best reflects my character. And my budget.

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