What’s in a Name?

by Sheila Connolly

I have multiple names. I know, since this is a blog written by writers, you will immediately assume I mean pen names. Nope, it’s more complicated than that.

When I married, decades ago, I did not take my husband’s surname. I was making a feminist statement, see? Besides, Connolly was closer to the beginning of the alphabet than his surname, Williams. Also less common, although many people manage to misspell it. (There is no E in it, people!) I worked at Bryn Mawr College for a time, and since I had access to the alumnae database, I looked to see how many female graduates of my era had changed their names upon marriage. Eleven percent. That’s all? So much for that wave of feminism.

But I was reminded of this most recently when my husband and I refinanced a mortgage. The bank did a background credit check, as they should. My husband appears under only one name. I show up under four. Most are odd mash-ups of my surname and his. One of my doctors has me listed as Connollywilliams (yes, all one word).  Since our health insurance is in his name, most of my health care providers think my name is Williams. I do not have a single ID that lists me as Williams. If I am hit by a falling tree and found unconscious, I have no idea what the ER people will make of me. Yes, I carry an insurance ID card–with only my husband’s name on it. Not mine.  There is none with my name. We’ve tried to explain that to the provider, and they just don’t get it.

I wrote my first mystery series for Berkley under a pen name. Who was I to argue with a major publisher? I was insanely grateful to get a publishing deal at all. At least they let me choose the  name, and I picked one from a long-ago ancestor, with a surname that started with A, so the books would appear at eye-level on bookstore shelves. Didn’t save the series.

Connolly was a better strategic choice, since that put me right between Michael Connelly (one of those pesky E people) and John Connolly (no relation), so I knew people would at least see my books in passing. I guess it worked.

When we write our books, we have to make a lot of decisions about names. What’s the hero/heroine’s name? This is a person we hope we’ll have to live with for a long time. Do we chose a name we wish we’d been given? Do we honor a relative, living or dead? Do we pick something traditional and simple, or do we strain to invent something trendy, hoping that it will be more memorable? Do we use ethnic names or stick to neutral ones?

And what about the villains? We can’t waste a favorite name on a killer. Is there someone we want to slime, even though he or she may never know it? A hostile employer? An offensive neighbor? An annoying cousin?

There are even a few rules. Don’t use too many names that start with the same letter and are about the same length in a single book, because people will get confused. Don’t use names that are too weird or unpronounceable (I waver about using Siobhan, which I love as a spoken name, but the spelling is nothing like the way it sounds), because that takes a reader out of the story, which you don’t want. For a while it seemed like every writer had a main character named Kate (that trend seems to have cooled).

Names matter. It may be that they’re important only to the writer, like an inside joke, or the writer may be trying to convey something to the reader (naming a character Napoleon certainly sends a different message than naming him Joe). They are the first gift we receive when we’re born, and they follow us after death, engraved on our tombstone.

Writers, how do you choose your characters’ names? Readers, do you have favorite names? Names you hate? Names you think have been overused?