What’s in a name, and which one to choose?

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WHEN I START a new book one of the first chores is to identify characters and assign names. You’d think that would be easy. I first “flesh out” the character and then look for a name that fits, and I have spent way too much time looking for the perfect name. I have even sat with the phone book leafing through pages for a good name. I have found a lot of unique names. Can I use Zabory as a character?

Luckily, the Spencer Manning books are a series so I only had to angst over the main characters once. But that was a lot of initial angst. Spencer, my private detective, wasn’t a problem. He is my homage to one of my genre heroes, Robert Parker. But, not wanting to steal his creation, I changed his Spenser to my Spencer.

Rick Polad
Rick Polad

The problem isn’t always finding a name I like but sometimes liking one too much. In the first book, “Change of Address”, I needed a name for Spencer’s aunt and named her Rose, after my grandmother. Then I needed a name for Spencer’s love interest/friend on the police force. I thought Rose would work nicely.

I don’t remember how long it took for me to figure out I had already used the name, but I was well into the book and the name had already worn in for both. I  realize that many people do have the same name but keeping track of characters in a story can be confusing and having two with the same name is just asking for trouble. My solution was to change the girlfriend to Rosie and I think that has worked well.

In “Dark Alleys” I needed a name for the boy next door to one of the new main characters. How hard can it be to come up with a boy’s name? Not hard at all. I narrowed it down to Billy or Jimmy and decided on Jimmy. But I also liked Billy, so halfway through the book his name changed to Billy. That was caught by one of my “first readers”. I kept Jimmy.

The latest book, “Missing Boy”, is about… well, you figure it out! But there are many boys in the book so I needed several names and resurrected Billy for one of them, the son of a neighbor across from Spencer’s new office. But I guess I didn’t like Billy as well as I thought because somewhere along the way I changed it to Bobby.

I also needed a new name I had not used in any of the books for the main missing boy and, after some searching, decided on Martin. After the book was published it was pointed out to me that Marty was the name of the little girl who Spencer went to work for in “Change of Address”. Not a disaster, but interesting how names get stuck in my head.

So… what’s in a name? It’s not as easy as you would think. I now keep a sheet of paper with just the character names and constantly refer to it to check continuity. But Spencer and Stosh and Rosie aren’t on the list. I often wonder what’s happening to my brain cells, but I still have enough left to remember my main characters!

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