Wednesday, September 16, 2020

What's in a name? By Michele Weber Hurwitz

What's in a name? Short answer: A lot. 

Authors have been known to obsess over what to name their characters. And for good reason. A name should be memorable, fit the age of the character and the overall setting and time frame of the story, and perhaps even reinforce the character's qualities.

Readers can get an instant impression of a character just from his or her name. Think of Spike or Priscilla or Ethel. What do you feel when hearing those names? Whether your immediate judgement turns out to be true or not, most of us start getting an idea for the kind of person they might be. Names can evoke a generation, like Madison or Sheldon. They can have a regional flavor, like Beauregard, or even be a nickname, like Turtle in Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer Holm. And a name can give us a personal point of reference, too. The name Beth will always make me think of my next door neighbor and first friend.

Authors use different techniques to come up with original, meaningful, and creative names for their characters. I once heard Margaret Peterson Haddix say that often, when she's writing, a name just comes to her, but she also uses baby name websites when she's stuck, which is something I've done too.

Here are some of my favorite middle grade character names:

Stanley Yelnats, Holes -- Who can resist that clever backwards twist?

India Opal Buloni, Because of Winn-Dixie -- I love the flow, the three names, and how the last name sounds like bologna!

Beezus and Ramona, Ramona series -- How could anyone not adore a character named Beezus?

Moose Flanagan, Al Capone Does My Shirts -- I think every kid wants to know more about a character named Moose.

Wahoo Cray, Mickey Cray, and Tuna Gordon, Chomp -- Wahoo and Tuna? I'm in.

Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern, One Crazy Summer -- The best sister names ever.

Pippi Longstocking -- My fave all-time character name. I instantly recall those sticking-out red braids!

There are some character names that were so perfect, they've become ingrained in our culture, such as Atticus Finch, Jay Gatsby, Ebenezer Scrooge, Hannibal Lecter, Hester Prynne, Holden Caulfield, and Scarlett O'Hara. Can you imagine these characters with any other name?

So when dreaming up names for your characters, choose wisely. Yours may become the next Romeo and Juliet!

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of five middle grade novels from Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. Visit her online at

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