Writers we should read

Hi all, This is not a question about what to name a character. It is rather a question about which writers we should be reading to find really good names. Don't you find that some authors just choose the most magnificent, spot-on names for their characters? And that others choose clunky, anachronistic, or just plain weird ones? As an NE and book lover, I find that the wrong name is so distracting that I can't concentrate on the plot of the book, while a well-chosen name ... well, I find well-chosen names to be distracting at times because I pause to appreciate the name and savor its place in the book. But that's a good distraction!

At any rate, here are a couple recommendations of authors who consistently choose excellent names to get you started:

Kate Atkinson--if you haven't read her Jackson Brodie novels, you're in for a treat.

Kate Morton--She has only written three novels, but the names, oh, the names!

What else should I be reading? (Lucubratrix, I checked out The Forsyte Saga and plan to start reading it soon. I look forward to reading about a Jolyon!)


July 7, 2012 10:35 PM

The names in Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy are great.  Most probably aren't names you'd use, but they are somewhat of a commentary on how names might shape our personality.  The hero's name is Fitz (meaning the bastard of a king).  Many of the characters have virtue names- Verity, Regal, Chivalry, Shrewd, Celerity (I LOVE this name!).  The speaking and giving of names holds importance in the series.  Plus, it's just an amazing tale!

By EVie
July 8, 2012 12:14 AM

Ooh! I will plug my absolute favorite author here: Judith Merkle Riley (who very sadly passed away in 2010). Her books are feminist historical romances with a subtle fantasy twist. Her day job was as a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, and the research behind her books is fantastic—period-accurate names included. Her books are:

  • The Margaret of Ashbury trilogy: A Vision of Light, In Pursuit of the Green Lion, The Water Devil (14th-century England, with some parts set in France)
  • The Oracle Glass (17th-century Paris) (This one is my favorite)
  • The Serpent Garden (16th-century England)
  • The Master of All Desires (16th-century France) (This is probably the weakest of the lot)

I'll also second the Robin Hobb recommendation, and add that the names in the Liveship Traders trilogy are very well-done as well—particularly the names of the ships (which are sentient).

July 8, 2012 7:12 AM

Ooh yes, Robin Hobb! I'm reading the third in the Tawny Man series right now (Fool's Fate) and was just relishing the Nordic-type names last night (the Narcheska Elliania, for one).


EVie, I will put Judith Merkle Riley on my list. How exciting!

July 8, 2012 8:23 AM

I just re-read the Farseer, Liveship, & Tawny Man trilogies in order, then added the 1st & 2nd Rainwilds books.  What a great series to get lost in!

July 8, 2012 7:46 AM

I think J.K. Rowling chooses excellent names for her characters, everything fits well.

I think it would be rather interesting to have a character whose name did not reflect on them but on their parents. Has anyone seen anything like that?

July 9, 2012 9:23 PM

Baby Name Lizard, Totally with you on Rowling. She's amazing.

You ask an interesting question and I am sure that I have read books that have characters in that situation. The only one I can think of is Sister by Rosamund Lupton. The main character is named Beatrice, but she explains early in the book that she goes by her middle name because her first name was something frivolous and frilliana (she didn't use that word, but that's what I remember). I think her name was Arabella, which she felt didn't suit her at all. It's been about six months since I read the book, so I'm not sure Arabella was the name. At any rate, it's a great passage about names and naming.

July 15, 2012 4:13 PM

In the Junie B. Jones books, Junie explains that her middle name is Beatrice, but she doesn't like that, so she just uses the B. It's been about 10 years since I've read any of those books, but I'm pretty sure that's what she said to explain the "B."

July 9, 2012 11:44 PM

Oh, actually (and it's a fun read anyway), I was intrigued by the naming connundrum (and the other character names) in The Thin Woman by Dorothy Cannell. The main character goes by Ellie, but her real name is Giselle. It talks about why her mother chose that for her and how it totally doesn't fit her as a person. :-)

July 16, 2012 6:39 PM

There's a series of children's books called "The Exiles" by Hilary McKay about four free-spirited sisters called Ruth, Naomi, Rachel and Phoebe.  The narrator introduces them by saying something along the lines of, their parents named the first three for how they hoped they would be, but gave up with the youngest and named her for how they expected her to be.  I can sort of see how Phoebe has more of a mischievous ring to it than the first three, though I'm sure there are more mischievous names out there.

July 8, 2012 11:40 AM

As a corollary to this thread, my pet category of novelists who get the naming wrong is the suthor of historical novels who chooses anachronistic names.  I am especially peeved by this when I am reading novels set in the Middle Ages (my period of specialization), and the wrong names feel like a thumb in my eye.  To my mind this sort of thing is entirely unnecessary.  If an author can't do enough research to get the names right, the rest of the period details are apt to be off as well.  To be fair, though, I was once told by an author of young adult  historical novels that her publisher forced her to change character names from authentic to anachronistic, thinking that the more "modern" names would have more appeal for the presumed audience.  BTW the heralds of the Society for Creative Anachronism have compiled lists of  names attested from 500-1500 AD from various parts of the world.  The lists can be googled, and I think make fun reading for name enthusiasts.  And you can certainly find lots of genuinely historical names which will definitely not be one of many in any given kindergarten class.

July 14, 2012 1:02 PM

Surprised not to see George RR Martin's Game of Thrones mentioned yet. He has some great names in there. (And A TON of them!) I like that they are often variations on more common names. I also just started watching the series with my husband and was surprised by some of the pronunciations used on the show. Probably in part because I am American though!


By EVie
July 15, 2012 12:06 AM

I was surprised by some of the pronunciations, too, but then, that always seems to happen with fantasy novels. At least GRRM's names are somewhat intuitive, unlike Robert Jordan's. I remember when I first read his books back in high school, I made it through the whole first book before I realized that there was a pronunciation glossary at the back, at which point I saw that I had been pronouncing more than half the names wrong.

George R.R. Martin is American, though (originally from Bayonne, NJ... which is also a counter-intuitively pronounced name, bay-OWN). So if anything, when I watched the series I was surprised to hear some of the names pronounced in a more Americanized way than I had imagined. For example, Targaryan, which I would have guessed was tar-GAR-ee-en or perhaps tar-GAAA-ree-en, but definitely not tar-GAIR-ee-en, which is something only a north American would say (see: the many conversations we've had about the Mary-marry-merry merger). 

I watched an interview with GRRM recently in which he said that he finds naming his characters incredibily difficult. He mentioned also that he once talked to another author (whom he did not name) who said that she didn't name her characters until the very end—the whole way through writing the book, she wrote them as X, Y, Z etc. GRRM said he found that inconceivable, and couldn't imagine writing about a character without a name—the name is just too integral to their identity to be able to properly develop them without it. I totally agree with him. 

October 24, 2012 3:18 PM

I LOVE Kenneth Oppel's writing. And anything by Suzanne Collins is usually AMAZING. If you haven't read J.K. Rowling's books, you've been deprived.

November 12, 2012 9:37 PM

I just finished reading Son, Lois Lowry's new book in series that began with The Giver. The naming style in each book is different.

In The Giver, children are assigned a number based on their birth order for the year in which they are born. Only 50 babies are born each year in the community and women selected to be birth mothers are inseminated in such a way that ensures only 50 will be born. The children receive a name in a community ceremony every December. Names are only reused within the community when someone dies.

Gathering Blue, the second book in the series, features another dystopian society in which people's names expand as they mature. Children have one-syllable names, adolescents two-syllable names, and so on (up to four syllables). Ann becomes Anna, then Annabel and finally Annabella.

In the third book, Messenger, which features some of the same characters but yet another community, people earn their names, which are descriptive. Christopher becomes the Seer, based on his ability to discern the truth (and despite his blindness).

The protagonist of the final book, Son, lives for a while in a seaside community that has no particular naming rituals, but in which the residents all have vaguely Gaelic names.

I highly recommend these books and was so looking forward to discussing them with my ten-year-old daughter. She found The Giver too hard to take and sobbed through most of it. Alas.


November 21, 2012 11:36 AM

I just finished reading The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall. The book is about, you guessed it, a lonely polygamist who has four wives and twenty-eight children. With so many characters, you can imagine that some of the names were humdingers. Golden Richards is the protagonist and his four wives are named Beverly, Nola, Rose-of-Sharon, and Trish. Their children include Em, Sibyl, Rusty, Ferris, Fig Newton (no explanation as to why that's her name), Pet (another girl), Faye, Wayne, Jame-o (a boy), Deeanne, and Novella. Another male character is named June.

May 1, 2013 10:22 PM

I just read the newest Kate Morton novel (The Secret Keeper) and found that again, Morton is a Name Enthusiast's dream. If you love botanicals, this novel is for you! It features characters called Laurel, Iris, Rose, Daphne, Dorothy, Vivien, Gwendolyn, and Henry. And her plots are engaging as well, but I have to confess that the names are almost as big a draw for me.