Have you ever wondered how authors (other authors) come up with names for their characters? This is the technique I used for my debut novel, Blinded by the Sight.
First, I wanted to avoid problems arising from unintentionally raising someoneís ire by using their name for someone theyíd label as a less-than-desirable character. Word of mouth is important for selling books, especially for a newbie like me. Although Iíve heard creating a buzz is more important than the details, being cautious by nature, I preferred not to test that theory.
I know some authors conduct contests, naming a character after the winner. Iíve heard that some winners donít even care if the person named for them is something other than a pillar of the fictional community, for example, one woman was said to be so pleased to have her name in a book, she didnít care that the character with her name was a prostitute. My guess is, she isnít Jane Q. Public.
I have what I believe is an unusual way of naming my characters. Blinded by the Sight is set in Minnesota. Aside from the two protagonists and the potential romantic interest of one of them, the last names of all the characters are the names of Minnesota cities. Since, thankfully, there are far more cities in Minnesota than characters, I used a vetting process for selecting city names. The job was simplified by the unlikelihood of some city names. One example is Ball Club. I wanted readers to be able to coast through the book, rather than bringing them up short with a name like that. Another name I avoided was Climax. I hate to think of myself as a prude, but the closest my novel gets to sex is a kiss and Ö Iíll let you take it from there.
Hereís the process I employed. Each time a new character wriggled or stormed his or her way into the novel, I used their age and personality to select the first name. This system appears to have worked well enough to avoid protests from any of the characters. There was, however, a problem Iíll mention shortly.
Next I picked the first letter of the characterís last name and opened a Minnesota map to the section with an alphabetical listing of all the cities in the state. I went through that listing until I found a name I liked. Voila!
I donít know about you, but I have trouble keeping characters straight if first and/or last names are different but begin with the same letter. For me, this is more of a problem with first names, but I was trying to accommodate all readers. Of necessity, there are family members in Blinded by the Sight. Many, but not all of them have the same last name. However, I never used the same beginning letter for anyone but relatives. This is how I ended up with last names like: Winthrup, Linton, Alden and Kinney.
I made three exceptions to the process described above. My two protagonists, two investigators (detectives) with the St. Paul Police Department are named Pete Culnane and Martin Tierney. Unbeknownst to him, through a genealogical miracle, Pete is the great grandson of a woman who babysat me when I was very young. I donít know her first name. She was always Mrs. Culnane, and she was wonderful! I loved her dearly. Itís interesting to see how some of the same personality traits passed from generation to generation in the Culnane family, but Pete is definitely his own man. That explains Lieutenant Culnaneís last name. His first name just fits.
His junior partner, Martin Tierneyís name is a little harder to explain. In this case, I had limited exposure to the name Tierney, and it just seemed right for him. Now his first name is another matter. It was Jack until the final proof. It was Jack through a critique, two editors and acceptance of the manuscript by the publisher. Only then did the second editor tell me that she had trouble keeping Pete and Jack straight. She said they are radically different people in every respect, but thought the names were too similar. Both Pete and Jack are common names, both are one syllable and both are four letters. Every time she came across one of their names, which was often, she had to stop and figure out which one it was. Well, as I said earlier, I sometimes have trouble when two or more characters have first names that begin with the same letter. For example, if the characters are Beth, Beverly and Betty, I have trouble keeping them straight.
This pronouncement about the names Pete and Jack amazed me. Until that moment, it never occurred to me that two characters named Pete and Jack would confuse readers. I told the first editor about this, and she said she had the same problem. That clinched it. I had to fix this. I came home, went on the Internet and searched for popular first names for boys born in the appropriate time frame. Number 115 on the list was Martin. Jack had always been Jack to me. In fact, I still occasionally slip and call him Jack. However, the name Martin also fits him. Iím not certain, but Jack may have decided to be called by his middle name either previously or now, that is, is he Jack Martin or Martin Jack? But why did his parents select the name Martin?
That much I do know. My momís father had two brothers. They lived long enough for me to know and love them. Their names were Pete and Martin, who always went by mart. Martin Tierney doesnít have that option. If he decided to go by Mart Ö
The final exception to my naming technique is Katie Benton. She pops up occasionally as a potential love interest for Pete, a widower. Katie strays marginally from the naming system. Her last name is the name of a county in Minnesota. Lest you decide her last name is a tip-off that sheís destined for a long-term relationship with Pete, he hasnít yet decided. In fact, he wants me to forget everything but the sequel. Heís anxious to uncover the facts he requires to get on with his life, and heís quite vocal about this at the most inopportune times, like now.
Out of deference to Pete, Iíd best sign off and get back to work.
Thanks so much for this opportunity to participate in the Savvy Authors Blog.
S.L. (Sharon) Smith
Born in St. Cloud, Iím a lifelong resident of Minnesota. I obtained a bachelorís degree from St. Catherine University in St. Paul, majoring in psychology. A died-in-the-wool introvert, I found the coursework engrossing. The things I learned in those classes have been invaluable to me in writing fiction. Writing nonfiction, however, was one of my major responsibilities during the 32-years I worked for the State of Minnesota, Department of Public Safety.
Iíve never been married. Although I have no children, eleven nieces and nephews do a wonderful job of filling the void. Among my other loves are reading and travel.
In the early days of the new millennium, I completed a different version of my debut novel. Realizing time was fleeting, that manuscript took a backseat to family memoirs. I spent four and a half years gathering information and finding anyone and everyone with a link to my family. In the process, I discovered a treasure trove of stories and pictures. Many date back into the 1800s.
Once Iíd compiled and published those books, I returned to fiction. By then, the motive for murder was passť. The rewrite was huge, but I donít regret prioritizing the memoirs. I believe they will accomplish what Iíd hoped, i.e., preserving the memory of these integral parts of my family for future generations.
Although Blinded by the Sight is my debut novel, this isnít the first time I was published. In the mid 1990s, three articles I co-authored were published in public administration journals. Even so, the memoirs and Blinded by the Sight feel more like theyíre my babies. I have more of a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction from them, perhaps due to the relative time commitments each project entailed.
Blinded by the Sight
by S. L. Smith
Mystery set in St. Paul, MN
North Star Press of St. Cloud, Inc. ∑ September 1, 2011
Police investigators Pete Culnane and Martin Tierney are as different
as parchment and newsprint, and Martin s insecurities are fed by Pete
s expertise and finesse. A homeless man wearing an eye-popping diamond ring is as inexplicable to both of them as the disappearance of the two boys who reported his body on St. Paul s Upper Landing. Blinded by the Sight demonstrates how good intentions can go awry, resulting in unintended, life-altering predicaments.