On Last Names

Since I’m on this name kick…

Last names are an ongoing bugbear of mine. There aren’t the same resources as with first names — Behindthename.com has a surname section, but it’s scant.

I used to collect last names from movie credits. I worked in a mailroom once — that was a great place to find wonderful last names. I also worked for an insurance company and occasionally mined surnames from physician databases. When I was writing both SSG and Rampant, I worked at a scientific journal — another great place to find names. Not only did every article come with a host of Dr So-and-sos to steal, the citation lists invariably provided heaps more.

(Here’s a bit of trivia. James Orcutt, aka Poe, was stolen lock, stock, and barrel in this manner. INCLUDING his middle initial, though I decided what that stood for.)

Sorry, I’m back. I got totally distracted by the dossiers. Anyway, my goal with those names was picking things that sounded very normal, like names your schoolmates might have had. I did not want them all to sound like bland, generic fictional names.

With Rampant, the names had a different purpose. These were characters whose family histories were intimately tied up with their superpowers, and so surnames, being a way to track those characteristics, should reflect that. Most of the characters, therefore, have surnames that indicate their heritage (many mean “Lion” since they were part of the Order of the Lioness).

I have, with three exceptions, avoided giving last names of the main characters in any of my short stories. With one, her last name fit too well with her character. With another, it was important to the plot. With Elise from “Errant” her “last name” is more like her title, and again, that’s important for the plot. I don’t know if I could sustain that for a whole book, though. It would have to be a very special circumstance.

In For Darkness Shows the Stars, I had a new challenge with the last names. Since I was writing in a post-apocalyptic world, I decided that surnames carried a different meaning than they do here, where many of our names no longer connect with the qualities our ancestors possessed. How many people, indeed, know that a person named Holtz had an ancestor who lived or worked in the woods? My own last name, Peterfreund, is German for “friend of Peter” but my paternal grandfather was not German, and I have no idea who this “Peter” could have been.* I decided that my post-apocalyptic society would be reinventing surnames from the ground up, so they would be recognizable as belonging to their origin words.

I try to avoid being lazy with last names whenever possible. Even when I use a “common” last name (Giovanni Cole, anyone?) I have done so deliberately, as both a surprise to the reader who bothers to look it up and because of what it indicates to the reader who doesn’t. To pair something as recognizably Italian (and ornate) as Giovanni with something so mainstream American (and masculine, cowboy-sounding) as Cole says something about him that no amount of describing can.

Names are important. Tiff said in the comments of the last post that she was at a point in her writing where it was “more important to nail down the story than the names.” That doesn’t work for the way I write. They are one in the same. If the name isn’t correct, it’s as if I’ve “cast” the character wrong. I can’t get the story correct if the characters are wrong.

I think often about great last naming of fictional characters: Scrooge, Havisham, Dumbledore, Malfoy, Youngblood, Day.** It’s easy to go overboard, of course. (I’m looking at you, Dickens). But if you can find that sweet spot of hinting at a character through their name — oh, it’s a beautiful thing.

I’m working on character surnames today. I haven’t decided how to handle it in my new book.

What are your favorite ficitonal surnames?

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* I was once told by a French woman that “Peterfreund” is a common Jewish name where she’s from, much like people in America would recognize a name like Greenberg or Silverman as being “Jewish.”

** Yes, three authors tend to spring to mind when I think about extraordinary names.

Posted in names, writing life

9 Responses to On Last Names

  1. Jenna says:

    I love this topic! And I love how you put so much thought into it, it really shows when I read your books AND I feel respected as a reader that you don’t mess around when it comes to stuff like this.

    I read a while back that J.K. Rowling originally gave Hermione the last name of Puckle, but decided it was too silly-sounding. Thank goodness she changed it!

    I also like how Libba Bray gave Gemma the last name of Doyle to honor Arthur Conan Doyle.

    I also love the last name of Lyra in “His Dark Materials.” Not only does Belacqua just roll off the tongue and sound good with her first name, but it has a literary reference of being from Dante’s “Inferno,” like the title of the trilogy. PLUS it suits her. Pullman is a master!

  2. PurpleRanger says:

    I wish I could remember where I read this, but I once read an author (I want to say either James Michener or Sidney Sheldon) saying that he kept a copy of the Manhattan phone book as a reference for last names. If he decided that a character’s last name began with K, he would flip to that section of the phone book and start looking until he found a name that suited the character.

  3. The names are the best part. I love naming my characters, though it’s a lot of work to get them just right. I named one of my characters introduced early on in my manuscript, and kept the name that way, until halfway through when it became apparent that was the name of a more important character introduced at the halfway point. Had to come up with a new name for the person I had already gotten to know and get used to calling the new person her “correct” name. As for surnames, I use various websites, the phone booth, and names from people I meet at work, etc.

  4. Jenna says:

    “but it has a literary reference of being from Dante’s “Inferno,” like the title of the trilogy.”

    Duh, “His Dark Materials” is from “Paradise Lost” not Dante’s “Inferno.” My mistake! I had to come back and correct myself because I felt like a dope. Anyway, back to the last name conversation. :)

  5. Diana says:

    Jenna, thank you so much! I did not know that about the origin of Lyra’s last name — who is Belacqua in the Inferno? I didn’t know that about Gemma Doyle, either, but I love it! So great.

    PR: the phone book was probably great for Michener, but it’s a little 20th century, huh? WE don’t have any here, at least. But credit sequences work well.

    Hi, Darin! That happened to me once, I had named a character Victor and then he just unilaterally decided his name was Vincent and I started using it — was halfway through a chapter before I realized it. Clearly, “Vincent” was his CORRECT name.

  6. Jenna says:

    I fail again. Belacqua is from Purgatorio not the Inferno. So instead of botching something yet again, I’ll just copy/paste what it says on Wiki about Lyra’s name (and let Wiki do the botching, ha ha).

    “Lyra’s original surname, Belacqua, is the name of a character in Dante’s Divine Comedy, a soul in the ante-purgatory, representing those who wait until the last opportunity before turning to God. The mood in the ante-purgatory is said to be one of helplessness, nostalgia and yearning — Belacqua and the other souls in ante-purgatory are caught between two worlds and lack clear understanding of themselves.”

  7. Amy says:

    I just took a writing class at my library taught by Eric Luper, and he was asked a question about names and titles. I found it interesting that this post was put up right after that. I also found it funny that I was just trying to decide on a last name for one of my characters. I ended up using my french dictionary and finding a really good last name for him because of its meaning.

    Also, my favorite surname would have to be Salmalin (yes Tamora Pierce’s character…)

  8. Tiff says:

    Diana, I get what you mean about how getting the names of the characters right is like casting the characters. And I totally knew you were going to say that!

    I agree, to an extent. For me, the naming of my main character came very naturally because she actually explains how she was named in the story – and it’s a big part of who she is. I’m not sure if that happened because I’m pretty new at this and I had to explain the whole thing to myself, or if it’s just a product of this story sitting in my brain for so long. But either way, so far I’ve noticed that names literally just pop out in my writing – I do think about them after I’ve written a bit more and look up their meanings (and am usually very excited by the added layer of associations and definitions that sync in with my characterization – seriously, it just happens that way!), but for tertiary characters, I sort of come up with the names as I’m writing and find that, like Darin said, if the name changes, it changes because the character wants it changed.

    I will say that I probably dissociate my characters from their names a bit more than most authors because I don’t like my own name. I don’t really think of myself as a “Tiff” or a “Tiffanie”, so maybe I’m more open to renaming as I go because of that.

    It’s interesting because I definitely feel like my main characters came up with their names on their own – and now I can’t think of them as anything else. But like I said before, I’m fairly new at this, so who knows if anything is going to change.

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