What’s in a Name?

Last month, I started writing my third novel as part of New Jersey Romance Writer’s JeRoWriMo (Jersey Romance Writer’s Month). Along with having only the bare minimum of a plot to start with, I struggled with two things: a name for my hero and a title for my WIP.

Character Names

I’ve read posts by authors who say they can’t write a word of their novel until they have the perfect names for their characters and to a certain extent I agree. The characters in my third book are Vicky (Victoria) and Jamie. Not overly original, I suppose. Vicky is a returning character from my second book and I couldn’t tell you how her name came to me. I did struggle a bit with Jamie’s name. He’s from a part Italian, part Irish family and has brothers with the names of Mario and Salvatore. They’re in my earlier stories and are bad. Because of the horrible things his brothers have done, Jamie will struggle with presumptions people have that he’s “no good”.

The idea for the name actually came from one of the actors from the TV show “Once Upon a Time”, Jamie Dornan—known by many as the “Hot Sherriff” who was surprisingly, and sadly, killed off in episode seven.

While my Jamie doesn’t have the beard or accent, I found the name suited my character who has recently retired from the Army and returns home to find his family going through some serious problems. Since his brothers were bad guys, I wanted this story’s hero to have a non-Italian name, to show he had always been a little different from his siblings. In this story, he’ll have some major obstacles to overcome in convincing the heroine’s family he’s not the psycho like his brothers.

I also like Jamie verses the more formal James because it’s “softer” and what I hope is a contrast to the big, muscled Army guy you first see. Here’s a guy who was raised alongside two brothers who turned out bad, served in the Army for almost ten years, but has a sensitive side that draws the heroine to him. What women can refuse and alpha-looking male who tries to fix what remains of his family and change how the town views them?

There even some “rules” that say you shouldn’t have too many characters that start with the same initial. This is especially the case for the good/bad characters. In my first story, my heroine is Meghan. Initially, I had named the antagonist Miranda but after feedback from a couple of contests, Miranda quickly became Amanda.

Tips for Character Names:

  1. Spend time researching. There are a ton of baby name websites to use.
  2. Find a name that means something or says something about the character. Most websites will give you the meaning of both first and last names.
  3. Vary the first letter of your key character names as much as possible.
  4. Keep it simple. Sure, you can go with a celebrity name, but if you do, be aware of the connotations of that decision. Can you really visualize a hero named ‘Hannibal’ or a heroine named ‘Snooki’?

Here are a couple posts I found with some helpful tips on finding unique names for your characters:




Story Title

Admittedly, I’m not very original when it comes to thinking of story titles. In fact, it may be harder for me to come up with a compelling title than write the dreaded synopsis. For my first two books, I kept reusing the same words, “chance” and “love” but wasn’t able to figure out a way to make the titles unique enough. Although I still haven’t resolved their titles in a way I like, I did want a more unique title for my third story.

I wrote almost 30,000 words before the title came to me. I was exercising in Jazzercise class one evening when Katy Perry’s “The One That Got Away” came on for the next routine. As I jumped and kicked, it hit me. My H/H were friendly growing up. Their families spent time together, including going on summer vacation together at the Jersey shore. The summer after he graduated high school, and before he left for the Army, they had a brief and intimate relationship. Despite the passage of almost a decade, neither has forgotten the other and it’s their shared past that draws them together while the feud between their families keeps them at arm’s length in the current day. So, my current working title is “The One That Got Away”.

How do you come up with your character and story names? Do you struggle like I do or does it come easily? I’d love to hear from you.


Leave a comment


  1. Nicole Doran

     /  March 19, 2012

    Happy Monday Femmes! I so look forward to your new entries. I love your story about how your latest title came to you Maria. I guess things sometimes just click – or go bam..and that’s it. I tend to lean towards heroes names that I’ve always liked. My hero’s name is Brian – which was a consideration when we named our boys..that and James, coincidently ( I wanted my youngest to be Jamie)…we didn’t go with it though. I think “The One That Got Away” opens up all sorts of scenarios in my mind just by those words. Great post and thanks for the links too!

    • I’m glad you enjoy our posts, Nicole. Thanks for sharing your hero’s name. After reading your post, I remembered there are certain names I’ve had bad experiences with that I use for my antagonists. I dated at least 3 guys named Steve. I can’t see me ever having a hero named Steve. In fact, in my first book, Meghan’s jerk of an ex is named Steve. Our life experiences can definitely come to play in our name selection. Thanks for stopping by. Enjoy the beautiful weather this week!

  2. Jenna Blue

     /  March 19, 2012

    As you know I’ve struggled with same. Just before finishing final revisions I realized I somehow racked up a gazillion M names. Macnamara, Mitch, Mackenzie, Maryanne, Marcone, Marcus…yikes! How’d that even happen? Obviously some of ’em had to go! And changing them wasn’t easy–they’d become those names for me.
    Orignally though, some character names come to me easily, others I really struggle with…
    Appreciate you posting the links–I’ll be taken advantage of those!

    • Hi Jenna,
      I feel your pain. It’s very frustrating to change a character’s name after you’ve written the entire story. It will be easier for your second book because you’ll make a point of not doing it like that again.
      Thanks for commenting!

  3. I struggle with this, too. Just learned a new book is coming out (same genre) using my same character names. Guess I’ll be changing at least one of them if it gets picked up by a publisher.

    I once had an agent tell me that historicals must have “cutesy” titles in order to get published. Not sure if that’s true, but it certainly is a trend in romance titles these days.

    Great post!

    • Hi Joanna,
      That’s too bad about the other book with your same character names. In my opinion, titles are harder to come up with for Historical because they all seem to have key words like “duchess”, “duke”, “rake” in them. I am always amazed at how creative the titles are, though.
      Thanks for commenting!

      • Historical names are trickier because you can’t use anything modern sounding. I had a contest judge catch me on using a modern-sounding NICKNAME once. Also, you don’t want to use a real name (Duke of Wellington, etc), so you do have to fact check a lot. Thank goodness for the Regency Name Generator (http://www.ugoi.net/nonsense/name.html).

  4. RoseAnn DeFranco

     /  March 19, 2012

    Hi Maria –

    Picking characters names is one of my favorite things to do. I usually have a strong idea about the qualities of a character before I go on the hunt for the perfect name. I have used the baby name sights as you suggested. My favorite sites are the ones where you can plug in meanings of names and/or search by ethnic background. I have just as much fun with last names and go about it in a similar fashion. In my current WIP, a YA Fantasy, all of my characters names represent the element of their heritage. The main characters are Elemental Gods. I had a lot of fun researching. I found a great site with a listing of 2000 names for classic elements. For me, the name helped define some of the secondary characters. I also had to change the name of a character in one instance because the translation of the name no longer held true to what the character was starting to represent in the story. Something that probably only will make a difference to me in the end. My favorite discovery for this project was the name of my Fire God…Conley…it translates to Purifying Fire. Perfect for him! It might take a bit of time prior to starting a new project, but for me, it is a huge and helpful part of the process.

    As for titles, they tend to come to me spur of the moment…or when I need to give the file an actual name before sending to a critique partner for review. Thanks for the topic!


    • Hi RoseAnn,
      Thanks for sharing your process. I’m glad you like the research end. It sounds fun researching the Elemental Gods and agree that Conley is a great and god-like name.
      Thanks for commenting!

    • Very cool, RoseAnn!

      • Valerie Luna

         /  March 23, 2012

        We are given our names–but how many of us are happy are we with them??? Do they fit us? We are given our names at birth picked by parents, etc. Even naming our pets is an adventure. Does Fluffy end up fitting the fur ball that turns into the “Diva”? Working in the library I’m amazed with some of the first names that go with their last names. Michele you must see this at school. Do you have students named Linda, Selma, Stanley, or Felix. Names are so trendy. Not to mention all the trick spellings! What were the parents thinking. My very pregnant sister said she wanted to name my nephew “Dwight Dwayne” it must have been her hormones! Thank heavens she recovered! My nephew ended up Robert. So naming our grown up characters who are bigger than life people is not a simple task! I have often wondered what name they would pick for their author????? I think the 2 names for the characters I told you about fit them. At least Tommy, is pleased with his and he picked his lady love’s name. Just rambling thoughts late at night! What name would you have selected for yourself?

  5. Lori

     /  March 19, 2012

    Hey Maria,

    The contemporary I am trying to write is centered around three girls who own a restaurant. I decided the restaurant should be their first initial put together. I love rams because of my horoscope so I decided I needed an R A and M. I used Reese for the first story because none of the other R’s appealed to me.
    The title was even harder. She is a girl wanting to be on broadway. So I tried It’s Time to Break A Leg. Honestly, knowing what I know now I want to gag on that one. Than I decided on just her name Reese, but that tells nothing of the story. At this point I had a pitch appointment at Nationals coming up. I wanted to go in without a title. I tweeted to the agent, without telling him I’d be pitching to him, and asked can you pitch without a title. He said no, the title can always be changed, but you need to have something. So I went to my mom to fix things, because that’s what mom’s do right? She said what about Dancing with the Captain. She also didn’t like Ariel and changed her to an Amber. I figured she gave me the title I could give her one character to name.
    Okay back to my wip, thanks for the post. It’s awesome to have a place to learn and discuss at.

    • Hi Lori,
      Moms definitely know best. Mine usually does and I always tell my kids that :-). I like the name Amber better than Ariel-all I visualize is a mermaid. I’ve heard in many cases, the title of your book changes when you get published. So it probably doesn’t pay to spend a lot of time figuring it out. I like Janet Evanovich’s method-use numbers in your title and run a contest for your readers to name the book. Works for me.
      Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Hi Maria, it is an agonizing process naming characters. I’ve seen a few people, myself including, who somehow have characters and secondary characters all beginning with the same first letter. And, last names count too. In my current WIP, I have an evil secondary call my heroine by her last name. Somehow if it had been a Smith instead of Rettino, it wouldn’t sound so well.

    Cheers, Michele

  7. Hi Michele,
    You’re right about the last names being important, too. I also like to think of nicknames since often we call people by something other than their birth name.
    Thanks for stopping by!

  8. Valerie Luna

     /  March 19, 2012

    Hi Ladies,
    Well I named my hero after my first ittle boy friend, Tommy. My hero has grown up & goes by Thomas. I gave him a last name that is an endearment. I’ve always heard from different authors that their characters talk to them. While my Thomas did all the way home from work one night. He wanted his lady named. Well I had him in my head–her not so much. He stunned me. He wanted her first name to be what I was thinking of using for my pen name. Now his endearment for her was a take on her first name. Totally different from than the one I considered for myself. And you know he is correct. It’s perfect for her–perfect them! They were meant to be
    I’m working on their story now. Remind me sometime off line to tell you what happened to the real Tommy. Thanks for sharing!

    • Hi Val,
      I’m glad to hear your hero’s name clicked for you. It’s a wonderful feeling when it does. I look forward to hearing what happened to his namesake. And endearments are important, too.
      Thanks for stopping by and sharing!

  9. I cannot write the story until I have the name, at least the name for my protagonist. The name makes the character real for me and I find it much easier to move through the story once I have nailed that down. I will stay away from names of someone I know if it brings too much of that personailty into the story, if there is a well known person whose name is immediately identifiable (i.e. Cher), or if a name has a negative connection to it and my character is not that type of person. Thanks for the links.

  10. Hi Lita,
    I, too, try to avoid using names of family or close friends. There’s so much in a name. I was particular when searching for my kid’s names, too. Once you have the names, lots of things can click into place.
    Thanks for sharing!

  11. What’s in a name? Well, the idea of naming characters after exes (especially the villains), is intriguing. What I do, though, is make my villains have characteristics of some of my horrible exes…like, the one on drugs, or the one who found his glory in knowing where all the strip clubs were in the state…that kind of thing. I use events all the time, but the names, well, I change them. I don’t want to be sued for slander, or libel, or whatever, lol! However, if the character is a good guy, I might use the name of a particularly nice ex…give him a shout-out. Of course, the likelihood any of my exes is reading my work is pretty slim. 🙂

    I do find titles a lot harder than character names…because they all sound so corny to me somehow. Eventually a working title comes, but I don’t stress out about it too much because I know it will likely be changed. As long as it’s not too hokey, I’m good.

    Thanks for the links, I’m bookmarking them now.


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