Naming Names


Naming characters can be such a challenge! But it’s not nearly as difficult as remembering what I’ve named them.

For my first four or five books, I kept an ongoing list of names I’d used so that I’d be careful not to re-use them. Somewhere around book six, I got sloppy or busy or both, and let my list of names slip off my list of things to do. Now, as I begin book number nineteen, I realize I simply must know what names I’ve used before.

I have a new, wonderful assistant, and I’ve given her the task of going through each of my books, making a list of first names, surnames, and fictionalized place names and the book in which each was used. The main characters’ names are marked with asterisks, since I want to be sure not to re-use them in particular. So far, my assistant’s made it through six of my books, and her spreadsheet already shows 237 first names, 118 surnames and 46 place names! Glancing over the list, I barely remember who some of these folks are. I saw that I’d used the name “Sylvie” in all three books of the Keeper of the Light trilogy. The name was familiar, but only vaguely. Who the heck was Sylvie? Turns out she was one of the character’s cats.  

A reader named Shelly once wrote to me to ask why I used the name “Shelly” so often in my books. I did? I had no idea, but in the six books already culled through, Shelly already appears twice, albeit with different spelling.

Why is it important not to re-use names? In the big picture, it probably isn’t, but I imagine one of my readers reading two of my books back to back, each with a character named Shelly and feeling at best, surprised by my choice in names, and at worst, confused over which Shelly she’s reading about. This becomes particularly important with surnames. I don’t want to make unrelated characters look like they’re part of the same family, but it’s an easy slip to make. We all have names (and phrases and vignettes) floating around in our minds, and when one of these pops into our heads while writing, it may seem fresh and new, but we’re really just tapping into that same old well of our memory. It’s the only one we have (which is why it’s important to refresh it from time to time, but I’ll save that discussion for a different post!) 

I have a few resources I use when naming characters. Baby name books, of course. I have several of those and I relied on them heavily in the days before the Internet gave me better options. Now, I often go to the Social Security Administration, where you can see which names were popular in which year. For example, a character I’m writing about right now was born in 1942, so I can see that Mary, Barbara and Patricia were the top three female names that year. I can dig as deep into the list as I choose. There’s also a feature in which you can plug in your name or another to see how popular it’s been over the years. Diane, for example, peaked in 1955 when it was the 14th most popular girl’s name. (It now ranks 906th).

For surnames, I love the phone book. I think that’s the only thing I use the phone book for anymore. I also like the obituary column of my local newspaper to help me find some wonderful old North Carolina names when NC is the  setting for my work-in-progress.  

Once I have a few names to choose from, I try them on to see which feels right for a particular character. I can usually tell within a few pages if I’ve hit the correct name. It’s rare that it happens right off the bat. One character in this outline has been Sybil, Grace, and Barbara all in the last few hours. I see on my handy-dandy new names list that I’ve already used Grace for a central character, so I think I’ll scratch that one. Sybil sounds a bit too “multiple personality-ish.” And this character really is not a Barbara, so I’m going back to the Social Security admin page.

 Maybe I’ll see you there.


  1. Gina on August 17, 2008 at 8:39 pm

    I’ve been out of town the last few days, and now I’m trying to catch up with everything.
    Interesting about the names Diane. I never really thought about this, but I could see how it could become a big challenge in trying to remember which names you’ve already used.
    I always figured authors just had names “pop” into their heads, I never thought about getting them from the phone book and the SSA. How cool is that!
    I’m so glad you were able to find an assistant to help you. That has to be a big relief for you.
    And, LOL on “Sybil” sounding multiple-personality-ish. I so, agree with you.

  2. Margo on August 18, 2008 at 7:55 am

    Diane, I love the names you use for your characters and always wondered if they just appeared in your head or you researched to find the right name to fit time and place. I only remember Shelley being used once in your books…from SUMMER’S CHILD…she was a fav character of mine and I thought her name was perfect. Book number 19!…what a great achievement Diane!

  3. Betty on August 18, 2008 at 11:41 pm

    Diane, I love your blog. I find it fascinating to see how you are progressing with your latest book. Thank you for sharing all the little tidbits about writing. I wonder how Charles Dickens came up with some of his names?
    I sent you an email about our book club but am not sure if I did it right. Thought I’d put a note here also so you can let me know if the email didn’t actually arrive in your box. It may be floating out in cyberspace. Sometimes I amaze myself with how well I manage all this new technology. Other times, I am baffled by the simplest process. LOL I just keep trying.
    By the way, I’m ready for After the Storm. In fact, I was ready when I got to the last page of Before the Storm. My husband is too.

  4. Diane Chamberlain on August 19, 2008 at 12:48 am

    Betty, I didn’t receive your email, so please do try again. It’s nice to hear from you!
    Margo, when my assistant finishes the spreadsheet on names, we’ll see how many Shelley’s there actually are.

  5. brenda on August 19, 2008 at 11:01 am

    1942-I WAS BORN 5 YEARS LATER…Thus, lots of my friends were born 40-50…Phyllis, Merdith, Sandy, Loraine, Becky or Rebecca, Catherine (My daughter is Katheryne but the C was common during the 40’s)Of course, you mentioned Barbara, Patty, and Mary…also Beverly, Joyce, Linda…Mine-Brenda was popular mid 40’s…never have liked it-sorry…I am Brenda Joyce…my best friends are Linda, Becky, Loraine, Sandy…Dorothy, Patty…you are right on track with the names…Cheryl…Ruth, Margaret…
    I can’t wait to hear what this WIP is about. It intrigues me that a character was born in 1942…

  6. Betty on August 19, 2008 at 12:51 pm

    I was born in 1941. My name is really Betty, not Elizabeth. I was named after my grandmother, Bettie Sue. I never did understand why my parents changed the spelling. There are very few Bettys around anymore. If I am in a store and someone says Betty, I look up immediately because it is so very rare to be around someone else named Betty. My friends were Sally, Janis, Nancy, Linda, Mary, Margaret, Sue, Ann, Betsy, Carol, Patricia (or Patsy), Emily, Beth,and Sarah. Oh, and Kay….
    not many of those names used today.

  7. brenda on August 19, 2008 at 3:47 pm

    Betty, I forgot about Nancy, Carol, Sue…Kay…I didn’t have Sarah…Emily-might have and just forgot…we are close in age-

  8. Martha O'Quinn on August 19, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    …Diane, loved “Before the Storm” and anxiously await “After.” In the late 60s I experienced, with my good friend, a first-hand account of post partum depression. Her husband was unsympathetic, I suppose from the “old school,” and refused to understand what his wife had to be depressed about. They lived in a fine home in a recognized neighborhood. She was able to stay at home and enjoy the benefits of his above-average salary. Our church pastor recognized that she was in trouble and succeeded in getting her the help she needed. I agreed to keep the baby each afternoon, M-F, while she was in therapy. I knew she loved the child but I wasn’t prepared emotionally for what happened the afternoon of her first breakthrough. Shortly before her son was six-weeks old, she walked into my home after her session to reclaim her baby and head home. She greeted me with a huge smile, walked directly to the baby, picked him up, kissed him, snuggled him into her neck and began crying. Needless to say, I sobbed with her; it was the first time I saw any physical outpouring of love for the little one. She was released from therapy soon after that and became the best single mom raising a child alone you can imagine. I understand, empathize and sympathize with Laurel’s situation. Very true-to-life, even though a bit different from my experience. My heart goes out to anyone in that situation. Meantime, I’m reading oldies but goodies. Recently read “Summer’s Child” and now have “The Courage Tree” in my hands. Don’t ever stop writing, regardless of duplicity in names, multiple personalities, etc. At my age I won’t remember! Oh, and by the way, my middle name is Fay (born in the late 30s) like the current tropical storm. If I’m to be associated with such a storm I hope I alleviate the drought we’re experiencing here in the mountains instead of wreaking havoc and devastation.

  9. Diane Chamberlain on August 19, 2008 at 5:25 pm

    Martha, you crack me up! So funny about Fay. And what a happy ending for your friend’s post partum depression. She was lucky to have so much support. Glad you’re enjoying my books!
    And thanks, all, for the names. We’ll see (eventually) which ones I settle on.

  10. brenda on August 19, 2008 at 11:13 pm

    Martha-so sad for your friend-since you said she was a single mother are we
    to assume her husband did not support her throughout the therapy? As to
    your name, my mother was FAYE, and I think it is ironic that I just missed
    the storm–arriving home Sunday from my son’s in Miami Beach… Diane-I
    agree-we don’t care what you name the characters…your stories are the
    best. Margo and I have been discussing books via email, and we agree you
    are so talented we can’t wait to read the next book…Margo and I have been
    discussing A SUMMER AFFAIR by Hilderbrand…hope to hear from some of you
    soon..if you read it.

  11. Margo on August 20, 2008 at 8:42 am

    Reading all these names discussed, I can only imagine that there were no ‘Margo’s’ in the 1940’s or even now for that matter. I’ve never met anyone else with the name…my mother said that my father actually named me but I really don’t know where he got the idea. Diane, I think Brenda and I both agree that we can hardly wait to hear about the new book your working on. It will be wonderful when you can share it with us! Martha, the story of your friend really got to me this morning…I’m glad things worked out for her and think you are a great friend to help her.

  12. Denise on August 20, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    Margo, when I see your name, I am reminded of the films we saw in my high school French classes years ago–the main female ‘actress’ in the films was Margo. Of course, I think it was spelled ‘Margeaux.’ I always loved that name.

  13. Diane Chamberlain on August 20, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    Margo, you have an oft-metnioned name in our house, since you’ve sent me some lovely paintings that hang on our walls and since John’s Barefoot Contessa photography partner is also a Margo. When John and I talk, I refer to you as “my Margo” and the other Margo as “your Margo.”
    I’ve always liked your name. I used it in Summer’s Child (if memory serves me correctly. . . ). I first heard it when, as a kid, I saw My Fair Lady on Broadway with the actress Margot Moser in the lead. It was also the name of Anne Frank’s sister.

  14. Margo on August 20, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    Diane…you and John definitely know more Margo’s than Gary and I do!…We don’t know any except me. It makes me feel SO good to know I’m ‘your Margo’! I’m truly honored to know my art hangs in your home and I quess you would be reminded of the name constantly since my signature is on each painting. Denise, you are correct that my name is French and now that you mention it as ‘Margeaux’ I am reminded of Muriel Hemingway’s sister whose name was Margeaux. My sister’s name is Marla which is also uncommon.

  15. Martha on August 21, 2008 at 9:19 am

    Brenda and Margo, thanks for your care and concern for my friend. Yes, her husband just never got it; he left her (I must add 😉 in their fine home in their recognized neighborhood with an above-average income). She eventually moved back home to be near her family.
    I always spelled my middle name with an “e” until my parents died in ’96. While cleaning out their home I ran across my original birth certificate. Alas, there wasn’t an “e” to be found; thus I lay claim to the current tropical storm.

  16. ooopinionsss on December 3, 2008 at 9:46 am

    How you think when the economic crisis will end? I wish to make statistics of independent opinions!

  17. nick_getrol on December 31, 2008 at 5:44 am

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