On Naming Names

In my first stint as a magazine editor, I looked up from my desk one afternoon to see a young deliveryman at my office door, carrying a flower arrangement. He looked lost. “Can I help you?” I offered.

“Are you Gay?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

He grinned broadly and proudly declared, “So am I!”

We shared a laugh for a good minute before he set the flowers on my desk, wished me a great day, and disappeared down the hall.

In my twenty-four years on earth at that point, it was the first time I realized that, as a name, mine had become an anachronism. When I told my mother about the humorous encounter, she revealed that she and my Dad had debated among three names for me—Joy, Merry, or Gay—before they settled on the one I have.

Ever since the flower guy’s visit, I’ve always tried to avoid startling any new person I’m about to meet with what might sound like a sexual identity announcement. So, instead of the usual “Hi, I’m Gay,” I say, slowly and distinctly, “Hello, my name is Gay.”

“Gay?” one might repeat.

I nod. “That’s my name.

Naming a fictional character

Choosing names for fictional characters is tricky, too, because the name has to fit. What might it communicate about them and their story?

I first pondered this when I helped write the thriller Five Minutes to Midnight. The author was an international expert on terrorism, and not a native English speaker. To start with, he asked for help in naming the main character, who plied the same profession as he did. The hero was bold and dangerous. After playing with possibilities, I came up with Sartain. To my ears, it sounded like a good cross between the word “certain” and the ultimate tough guy, Satan. The author loved it.

In my own Samantha Newman Mystery Series, I chose Sam’s last name because it reflected her unlucky habit of having to reinvent herself in each book. Now, after the first three books, she’s  in a good place. But given her history, who knows how long it will last?

Do you have a favorite fictional character name? Please share it in the comments below.

Gay Yellen writes the award-winning Samantha Newman Mystery Series, including: The Body Business, The Body Next Door, and The Body in the News.

10 replies
  1. Barb Eikmeier
    Barb Eikmeier says:

    I heard once when you can’t think of a good last name to consider the name of the street you grew up on. That would never work because I grew up in the country on County Rd P. Not going to use it. Ever. But I lived on Garrison Lane for six years later in life and I have used it as a last name. I’m afraid I don’t put as much careful thought into names as you do Gay!

  2. Saralyn
    Saralyn says:

    Your parents gave you a perfectly beautiful name, and you wear it so well. I think long and hard about character names, too. Too plain, and they are unremarkable. Too fancy, and they seem affected. I think Samantha Newman’s name is just right.

  3. Mary Lee Ashford
    Mary Lee Ashford says:

    A great post, Gay! I do spend time on thinking about character names and Rosetta Sugarman Calloway aka “Sugar” in my current series seemed just right for my main character/amateur sleuth. I can’t think of a favorite fictional character name of the top of my head. However, Atticus Finch came to mind as a character that was unique and memorable. And perfectly named.

  4. Lois Winston
    Lois Winston says:

    I spend a good deal of time coming up with the right name for each character. I love unique names and names with multiple syllables. I’ll occasionally offer a character naming for a charity auction or through my newsletter and create a character to fit the person’s name. That’s always a fun challenge.

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