Naming Names

We recently received several excellent questions that I would like to answer:

1.) Should (you) repeat a book name and how old should it be?

I believe you are asking if it is okay to use the same title for your book even if it has already been used before. And if so, how many years should pass before using that previously used book title.

What you are trying to avoid is having your book mixed up with someone else’s and there are some precautions you can take.

It’s always a great idea to do an Internet search to see if your title is too similar to current or soon-to-be-published offerings. I’d say if a mid-list book is several years old, and especially in a different genre, it’s okay to use the same title. A caution on choosing a title from another genre: you don’t want to use the same title as an unsavory book. This can happen innocently enough, especially with romance titles.

Another idea is to do an Amazon search to see if a book has more or less run its course so the title is no longer strongly associated with someone else’s work. Classics such as The Screwtape Letters will stay in print and always have strong associations, so these titles are obviously off-limits. You also should not re-use titles such as Gone with the Wind, Rosemary’s Baby or To Kill a Mockingbird.

Even with the best due diligence, it is still possible to end up matching someone else’s title. However, with good search engine optimization on your web site (SEO), your book should come up first on search engines while it’s current.

I recommend not getting too attached to your working title, because the publisher may decide to change it, anyway. I’ve heard that at least half of all books have their titles changed from their original proposed titles. And if you are publishing independently you may find that yours needs to change.

2.) Should you change character names if you see others using them?

I have a wonderful uncle named Grayson. I never knew of any other Grayson until suddenly, the name became hot a few years ago. Now you can’t get away from the name Grayson. That said, remember that trendy names will date your book. Does anyone remember how impossible it was to get away from the name Madison at one time? Now if I read a book with a woman named Madison, sometimes I feel as though I’m in a time warp.

My recommendation is rather than worrying about what others are doing, you should choose good, strong names for your characters that will stand the test of time. Choose names that aren’t too much in vogue, but aren’t too weird. One of my favorites is Veronica. Also, choose a name that people can pronounce because they will be pronouncing it in their minds every time they read it.

Invest in at least one great baby name book. I have a couple from when my husband and I were naming our daughters and I bought more later. Of course, there are great Internet sites, too, but a book is fun and doesn’t expose you to pop-up ads for prenatal massages and diapers.

Writers of historical fiction may enjoy a book that I own, called Names Through the Ages by Teresa Norman.

3.) Does it matter? When an agent gets ahold of it will they check it out? Or the publisher?

As an agent, I might recommend character name and title changes, but only if there is an extremely compelling reason to do so. I would discuss any changes with the author and we can come to agreement as to whether the author should stay with her current names and title or consider my suggestions. It’s always a negotiation. I can’t remember a time I rejected a submission based on a title or character name.

Like agents, publishers will do what they consider best for the market and author.


Your turn:

Has a publisher or agent asked you to change the title of your book?

What is your favorite character name?

What resources do you use to name your characters?


21 Responses to Naming Names

  1. Jackie Layton July 24, 2014 at 4:46 am #

    I’m always looking for good names. Sometimes I jot one down at work and add to my name file when I get home.

    Last year a new doctor moved to town with a pretty first and second name, but I kept thinking it would sound prettier if the middle name was first. That name has stuck with me and will belong to a character in my next book. (I’ll just have to come up with a good last name.)

    When I started writing seriously, a friend told me to come up with catchy titles for my stories, but “don’t get too attached to the title.” I’d be willing to change titles if asked.

    Lots to think about today. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thomas Allbaugh July 24, 2014 at 6:14 am #

    Helpful post, thinking here. I also like the name Veronica. Having been raised Catholic, I associate this name with the story of the woman who tried to relieve Christ’s suffering on his walk to the cross (probably just a story) rather than with the Archie comics. And as for titles, I find it both a challenge and an opportunity that the title is another place to clarify what I’m writing about. Working titles are as good as final titles on that score. I’ve read that Arther Miller’s working title to _Death of a Salesman_ was “It’s All in His Head.”

  3. Patti Jo Moore July 24, 2014 at 7:38 am #

    Great post and advice, Tamela – – thank you for sharing with us.
    In my humble opinion, names are so important (not just in “real life” but for characters too) and I’ve even been drawn to certain books when I read the back cover and loved the characters’ names, LOL.
    Being a retired teacher, I’ve found that often certain names will evoke memories of former students—which can be a good thing but sometimes not-so-good. 😉
    Thank you again for this post!

  4. JEN Garrett July 24, 2014 at 8:04 am #

    I have a baby name book for first names and a phonebook for last names. But I rarely open them because the characters tend to name themselves!

  5. Carol Moncado July 24, 2014 at 8:27 am #

    Apparently, I’ve been listening to too much Matthew West recently (is there such a thing?!) because when I saw this link on Facebook with the name tag photo, the song got stuck in my head: Hello, my name is Child of the One True King, I’ve been saved, I’ve been changed, I have been set free… Amazing Grace is the song I sing, Hello my name is Child of the One True King…

    Anyway… I’ve changed character names. One h/h went through about four name changes along the way. Another teenage daughter I still can’t remember what her name is right now so she’s Kimmie/Cassie/Jessie/Sammie/whatever when emailing or IMing with a crit partner, but it’s not a manuscript I’m actively working on right now.

    As for resources, I use student names, baby books, Random Name Generator (though I never use a full name from there but rather as inspiration), friends, family, a scroll through Facebook (especially for secondary or minor characters or last names), and the Bible’s pretty good for names (as long as you don’t go with Mephibosheth – which is what my pastor wanted us to name our son). One of my recent heroes is Malachi which I LOVE and fits him so well.

    I’m too attached to some of my titles. I know that. And I know I’ll have to deal with it when the time comes for a publisher to change it, but until then I’ll live in my happy little bubble :D.

    • Jackie Layton July 24, 2014 at 5:31 pm #

      Hi Carol,

      Matt’s song went through my mind too. What a great song!

      • Carol Moncado July 24, 2014 at 6:59 pm #

        Oh, I’m so glad I’m not alone, Jackie! I’ve had it running through my head all day and not even the radio or my “favorites” playlist has helped much! 😉 We love Matthew West around here!

  6. Wendy Macdonald July 24, 2014 at 8:30 am #

    Thank you, Tamela, for the helpful post. My husband and I named our first son Grayson. I’ve had several women tell me that they wanted to use this name. We know of two other Graysons in our town.

    My favorite character name is Wade. It’s from my WIP. My family hated the first name I had chosen and when I suggested this one everyone agreed it was much better. They were right. Names really do affect how we visualize a character.

    I’m prepared for the possibility that I’ll need to change my book title, but I know it’s best to at least have one for the query process. I consulted my beta readers for this too, and we agreed on–Where the Evidence Leads. Wade ( a police officer) says this phrase several times in the book.

    I did have an agent suggest I change the names of some of my secondary characters because they were dated. It was good advice, and I definitely followed it.

    I use a baby name book from my own library and from the internet. Yesterday I came across a lovely name in a gardening magazine for a future novel…

    Blessings ~ Wendy ❀

  7. Jeanne Takenaka July 24, 2014 at 9:41 am #

    Great post, Tamela. I struggle with names for my characters. My heroine’s names usually come to me. They’re usually names I love the sound of. 🙂 I know, probably not the best reason to pick a name. 🙂

    For secondary names, I look at the ages of the characters and go online to a baby name site that lets you look at popular names for various years. This is fun, especially if you can find their meaning too.

    I think one of my favorite character names from literature is Elizabeth Bennett. 🙂

  8. C.J. Chase July 24, 2014 at 12:19 pm #

    Some months before my first book was due out, I was anxiously checking Amazon, and lo and behold! There it was. My first book, available for pre-order. Except…the author’s name was ALL wrong. I looked more closely. The release date was right, but the Amazon info showed a different publisher. With a sick feeling in my stomach, I realized my first book was due to release on the same day as another book with exactly the same name. I contacted my editor, who contacted the marketing gurus, who decided that as it was late in the process to change and the books had different audiences, they would go with what they had.

    Shortly before the books came out, the other author contacted me, and we did a little some cross promotion where we talked about the similarities and differences in our books of the same name. She’s a sweet person whom I’d have never met if our books had different names.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 24, 2014 at 1:28 pm #

      C.J., what a great way to make lemonade out of lemons! I love that story!

  9. Sandy Mauck July 24, 2014 at 2:45 pm #

    Thank you for all the answers and tips, Tamela. Been having trouble with a character name that stands out beyond the character. LOL How about Much Afraid from Hind’s Feet on High Places. I have changed title and character names in WIP.

    Being in Historical Romance—Here are two websites that have helped me:

  10. Jennifer Zarifeh Major July 24, 2014 at 3:05 pm #

    I know I’m going to take some heat for my character names! My first 3 books, or 5, depending on how things pan out, will follow a Navajo family and each sibling’s experiences during the period of 1864 to 1868. Yeah, umm, I know this will not be easy.
    One brother’s name is Natanii. Hmm, not so hard. But Tsi’tnaginnie will be a rough sell. It’s pronounced “sit-nah-jin-ee”.
    In Sing Down the Moon, published in1970, Scott O’Dell tells the story of a Navajo girl. Great story, but he botched the names. The names he used ,’Bright Morning’ and ‘Tall Boy’, are fine, if the characters were Lakota or Ogala.
    If I was using Anglo names, or Lakota names, I’d be fine in terms of editorial suggestions. But Navajo names are extremely different, so I sought and received the blessings of two Navajo elders to use the name ‘Two Birds’, or Tsidii Na’kii, in the book. I needed that name because it’s a HUGE plot point.

    I know someone will suggest different names, something easier. In some things, I’ll be flexible. Some? Not so much.

  11. constance July 25, 2014 at 12:20 am #

    I might change the title but changing the names of characters would be stretching it. New writers are asked to bend a lot which sometimes is not fair

  12. Kathy N. July 25, 2014 at 4:15 am #

    My editor had to point out that two of my characters had the same name! I’d shortened one of them, so it didn’t seem like the same name in my mind. What a goof!

  13. Anne July 25, 2014 at 5:37 am #

    Two years before I had the plot in my head for my now completed novel, I wrote down: Charlotte Parker marries Jimmy Crawford. She is my main character.

  14. Lee Carver July 25, 2014 at 10:54 am #

    I use online search a lot for my foreign names. So far, I’ve written a WWII book set in Germany, and four Brazilian Amazon books. The only complaint has been the name of a minor character, an excellent jungle doctor named Fabio. My crit group says they can’t see the stocky, bearded, middle-age family man. They see a male model or stripper.

  15. Sandy Mauck July 25, 2014 at 11:14 am #

    I tried to respond yesterday with a couple of my sites for names for it didn’t go through but I just google historical names (that’s my genre).
    I mentioned this before but I have started books and said, “Ick! I hate that name but the character takes over for me and I loose the name feeling I first had.

    Lee… Fabio works for me.

    I had a character name situation that I didn’t see as a problem until a friend read the book and it was a lot of work to change it, but it was worth it.
    I like old fashioned names and I do hate stumbling over difficult names in a book. Whenever I see the name it stops me as a reader.

  16. Martha Rogers July 26, 2014 at 3:50 am #

    Since I’ve published primarily historical novels, I use a name base from a census site that lists the 100 most popular names by decade from the early 19th century to the 1930’s. Male and female names are different lists. My characters have changed their names in the middle of a manuscript when they “told” me they didn’t like their names.

    I have one manuscript where a number of the characters had names starting with C and a second name with J. It was done on purpose because the initials CJ. By tradition, the first born son of a generation was always given names with those initials and it became a bone of contention when the first born of the family was a girl instead of a boy but given the names anyway.

    Recently two books came out with the same title by two authors I love, but the books are different genres. That would be confusing to me if I wasn’t familiar with the authors.

  17. Nick Kording July 27, 2014 at 4:33 pm #

    Timely as I am changing my hero’s name based on a subplot added in a moment of inspiration.

    I love the meanings of words and tend to name characters based on their meanings. It’s a little ode to Biblical times for me to wait to name a character to get to know the character some.

  18. Karen Spencer March 11, 2020 at 8:47 am #

    I just completed what I hope are the final revisions on my very first novel – and to say that it was a labor of love would be an understatement. During the outline development, not only did the names of my characters change several times, but the title of the book changed at least three. Eventually, I decided to use the names of dearly departed ancestors. When it comes to my Irish roots, they’re highlighted by the Trainer family name. The name Nellie came from my Great-grandmother Nellie Trainer, whose mother was named Sarah. However, in “A Love Denied,” my main character’s name is Sarah Trainer, and Nellie Doyle is the raven-haired beauty who shows up to capture her grandson Josh’s’ heart. I don’t think my nephew Joshua will mind the use of his name – considering my character, Josh Trainer becomes a Pastor.
    As far as my father’s Kentucky side of the family, I used photo-copies from old Bibles and historical hand-written documents as well as oral communications to find my Cherokee Indian names. In real life, Daniel and Polly Amos are written in our family records as half brother and sister back in the 1890’s. Which means that the always helpful, Polly Whosoever, only exist in my heart along with the rest of my beloved characters.
    Also, another interesting nugget turned up while I was reviewing an online Indian Records Website. Imagine my excitement when the name Daniel Amos appeared on the Dawes Rolls, for the Trail of Tears. Although I’m not sure if he was our Daniel, I choose to believe that he was.

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