Naming Characters: a Ramble

Yes, here I am, trying to come up with character names again. Since my WIP, AFTER THE STORM, is a sequel, I have many of the names already in place. But there are new characters needing to be christened. You know how it is when you read a book and a name simply doesn’t fit a character? It can get in the way of the story. A tough, brutish macho dude should not be named Oliver or Reginald, for example. An elderly woman in a nursing home should not be named Tiffany or Britney. Names are important. 
For my first few books, I collected a list of all the names I used in each one so I wouldn’t reuse them. Of course I have reused some of them for minor characters, but I wouldn’t call two different central characters in two different books by the same name. At least I hope I haven’t. Since AFTER THE STORM is my eighteenth book, though, it’s hard to know.  Therefore, I’ve set about to make a spreadsheet of all the names I’ve used. This is in my  so-called spare time, so I’ve only made it through BEFORE THE STORM and THE SECRET LIFE OF CEECEE WILKES, and already I see I’ve goofed. I’ve given the same surname, Carmichael, to peripheral characters in each book. Too late to change it, and I’ll probably be the only person who notices, but it still irks me. Makes me wonder how many other Carmichaels I’ve put in my other books. And why Carmichael? I don’t think I know a soul by that name.
Here is how my brain works (and I bet this is how many writers’ brains work): I think of a character. A surname pops into my head: Carmichael. Perfect! How original! She “feels” like a Carmichael. I type the name into the manuscript and it looks right. Of course it looks right. The name’s been quietly lurking in the back of my mind since the last book. Who knows how many other names I’ve reused?
In my first novel, I named a character Elliott Porter. The name just popped into my head and it seemed to fit perfectly. Until my editor pointed out that Elliott Porter is a famous photographer. Well, no wonder the name sounded so good. I’d heard it somewhere before.
I suppose all this could be a sign of a creeping, insidious memory problem (shudder), but I think it’s that these names are stored somewhere in my/our brains and when we access them again they feel perfect because they’re familiar to us, even though we don’t realize it. Thank goodness for editors. And for spreadsheets. I’m definitely going to continue making my “name chart”. And after I’ve completed my current work-in-progress, you will not see another Carmichael anywhere in my books.


  1. Margo on January 7, 2008 at 11:31 am

    I have a good memory when it comes to characters but I sure don’t remember Carmichael in your previous book, Diane…who was he? (only tell if it’s not a spoiler)

  2. Diane Chamberlain on January 7, 2008 at 11:53 am

    In THE SECRET LIFE OF CEECEE WILKES, CeeCee/Eve’s daughter Corinne was engaged to TV news reporter Ken Carmichael, who was also the reluctant father of the baby she was carrying.

  3. Margo on January 7, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    Diane, your name chart is a great idea! To be honest, I don’t think I would have remembered Carmichael used before unless he was a main character.

  4. Diane Chamberlain on January 7, 2008 at 1:12 pm

    Yes, he’s quite inconsequential, as far as I’m concerned. I think it simply freaked me out to realize that name was floating around in my head two books in a row and I had no idea.

  5. Dorothy Thompson on January 7, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    Hi Diane,
    Just saw your promo run through at Author Avenue. I have to tell you what an inspiration you were to me when I was writing my hen lit a few years ago. I was listening to one of your radio interviews online and it gave me an idea to create a road trip for some over the hill, not that you are over the hill…it was an interview you had where you were talking about one of your books that had a beach theme, I believe. I wrote the book, did the agent thing, and got sidetracked, but I so want to get back to that book something fierce. Just wanted you to know what an inspiration you are and hope you have continued success!

  6. Julie on January 7, 2008 at 2:05 pm

    I saw the Author Ave thing, too, and have to say I love the movie Junebug! I watched it over the weekend in shifts as it was re-running on Lifetime and my son hadn’t seen it so we started the DVD over when we caught it in the middle. The inlaws are my inlaws reincarnated and we laugh our heads off watching that thing. And yet, the serious parts are so touching, too. Amy Adams is um … Enchanting. LOL That movie was cute, too. (Enchanted)

  7. Kathy Holmes on January 7, 2008 at 10:05 pm

    Diane – I have a terrible time with names. I can usually come up with a first name, but last names are more difficult. Organizing the names is what I usually do in the second draft, which is where I am now on my wip. And speaking of CeeCee Wilkes, we’re getting ready to move to where the real CeeCee Wilkes lives. 🙂

  8. Diane Chamberlain on January 8, 2008 at 3:15 pm

    I’m glad you enjoyed the Author Avenue interview. Anyone who didn’t receive it in your email and would like to, please send me your email address to and I’ll be sure you get one. (Also, check your spam folder first. . . )
    Dorothy, best of luck with your book. I hope you get back to it soon and that you have great success!
    Julie, aha! Now I know a lot about your in-laws. I think many people could relate to those characters in Junebug.
    Kathy, I’ve resorted to the phone book for last names at times. And remind me. . . who is the real CeeCee Wilkes?

  9. Julie on January 9, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    Oh, I guess I should say EX inlaws. That is a very important detail. First, my current inlaws are wonderful. Second, my ex inlaws are both deceased now, or I might not be putting it out here as boldly. 🙂 Hehe.

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