Friday Speak Out!: Choosing Names

Friday, January 17, 2020

by Saralyn Richard

I’m often asked how I go about choosing names in my books, and the question always catches me by surprise. Choosing names for characters and specific places in books is a necessary task, one that, for me, happens organically as the stories unfold.

I might compare the process to naming a baby, except that I have many more naming opportunities for characters than for real-live people, so weeks and months of pondering doesn’t seem necessary. Still, once a character is named, I begin to think of him with that name, and I rarely feel inclined to change the name to something else, so it is somewhat important to get the name right from the start.

Detective Oliver Parrott, whose first appearance in Murder in the One Percent sets the stage for the series, is a perfect example. Parrott is strong, smart, and quite articulate—just like a parrot. He also has a pet cockatiel named Horace. More importantly, Parrott’s name is a nod to Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.

Sometimes I name characters after friends or colleagues whom I admire and wish to honor. That can be dicey, though, particularly if the characters have traits or challenges that their namesakes might not relish reading about. If I anticipate such a problem, I will check with the person to make sure she’s okay with it. Since most of the people I know have good senses of humor, I’ve never had anyone object.

Of course, in fiction, all characters are derived from my creativity, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental. Once in a while, though, I have named a character after someone who is dear to me, but who has passed on. For me, this is a way to keep her memory alive, as it remains in my heart.

The Detective Parrott mysteries, Murder in the One Percent and A Palette for Love and Murder, take place in Brandywine Valley, Pennsylvania. That is a real place, and many of the names of restaurants, hospitals, museums, attractions, and even the police department, are represented by their actual names. The Hunt magazine, which appears in both books, is a phenomenal resource for me in creating the settings and situations. So many Brandywine Valley people have opened their minds and hearts to me, and I strive to do justice to them.

There is a common practice in Brandywine Valley to name mansions and to call them by name in conversation. That gives me more opportunities to create names. One of my homes is called Bucolia, a reference to the peaceful, bucolic nature of life there. Another is named Manderley, after the home in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.

As Rick Riordan said in The Lightning Thief, “Names have power.” It’s the job of an author to harness that power for the sake of the story. The creation of names is one of the privileges of being an author, and one of the most fun.

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Mystery and children’s book author, Saralyn Richard, won the Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Readers’ Choice Award 2019 for her first novel, MURDER IN THE ONE PERCENT. The book was also a Finalist for the Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award for Best Procedural Novel 2019, and garnered other honors and kudos. A PALETTE FOR LOVE AND MURDER, out in February 2020, is the second title in the Detective Oliver Parrott series. Richard’s children’s picture book, NAUGHTY NANA, has reached thousands of children in five countries. A member of International Thriller Writers and Mystery Writers of America, she has lived in New Orleans, St. Louis, and Chicago, and now lives in Galveston, Texas. Richard loves to connect with readers through book clubs, organization meetings, or on social media at the following links:,,,

Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


Sioux Roslawski said...

Saralyn---I agree. Names come about organically. My WIP is a historical piece. The event took place almost 100 years ago. For the main character's name, it came about as I began writing the story. It was a solid, old-fashioned family. The young man's name was solid as well. However, the names for the neighbors came from obituaries from that time period.

Good luck with your murdering... I mean your mysteries.

Saralyn said...

First, let me thank for having me on this inspiring blog! It's a pleasure to be here, and I loved writing this blog post about names. Also, thank you, Sioux--speaking of great names, you have one! Obituaries are a great source for names. Also, baby naming books or online sites. It's fun matching up a name's meaning with the character. I know one author who never chooses a name longer than four letters. Do any others of you have "name rules"?

Angela Mackintosh said...

Saralyn ~ thank you for this helpful post! :) I don't write fiction, but I change all the names of people in the creative nonfiction I write. I admit, I don't have the best method for this. If the real name has a hard consonant at the end, I think of another name that has a hard consonant. Same thing with a soft vowel. I'm mostly concerned with the sound of words. Other times I go with popular names from a specific time period to imply age, or a unique spelling to indicate how young they are.

Congratulations on your book awards! I'll have to check out Murder in the One Percent. It sounds fantastic. :)

Saralyn said...

Thanks, Angela. I like playing with sounds of names, too. (The poetry devices of alliteration, assonance, consonance, and rhyme come in handy for those.) Sometimes I have fun with puns, as well. For example, one of my characters is named Melody Singer, and another is named Blanche Allmond.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Saralyn,

Names are as important as descriptions. For example, a pit bull might have a name like Killer whereas a toy poodle might be given a name like Puffy. Names in a novel or story bring certain images to mind. Choosing character names is significant in character presentation.

Daniella Bernett said...


As Shakespeare said, "What's in a name?" For an author, everything. I agree with you wholeheartedly character drives the story. Therefore for me, a character's name is all-important. Once I have the name in my head, like you, I start building the personality, likes and dislikes, good qualities and flaws (since we all have them). Setting is just as vital as character. I always feel that the setting establishes the mood and helps to propel the story.

R.R. Brooks said...

Names are certainly important. I have encountered more than one reader who struggled with my fantasy novel Justi the Gifted because of the unusual names. In fact I was moved to write a blog that asked if this was a peculiar problem for the fantasy genre. Here is another aspect of the name issue: gender identification. I am enjoying a Shirley Rousseau Murphy book where the characters named Ryan, Alain, and Charlie surprised this reader several chapters after they appeared. They are all female. Talk about stopping the reader.

June Trop said...


I too have some rules for names:

1. Names with double letters add strength to the character.

2. Keep the names simple if you can so they don't snag the reader's eye.

3. And, don't have more than one character's name begin with the same letter or sound.

And, like you, I try to match the personality of the character with the meaning of the name.

BTW you are a role model for me. Your characters' names bring them to life.

Saralyn said...

Thank you, Jacqueline, Daniella, Bob, and June. What a think tank you are! There is so much to say about choosing names. Thanks for your contributions to the subject.
p.s. It's mutual, June.

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