Creating Incredible but Credible Characters: Names Matter

Scarlett O’Hara was originally called Pansy. If Margaret Mitchell had kept that name, would her epic novel ever have become so popular? A character with the name of Pansy could be sweet and biddable with rare moments of stubbornness, but since “Pansy” lacks the harsh consonants of “Scarlett,” the name doesn’t sound as if it belongs to an iron-willed character who could catch and keep the attention of such a worldly man as Rhett Butler.

ThUncertaintyough Scarlett fits the name of the character in Gone with the Wind, it could not be the name of a medieval heroine. In those days, the most popular name was Mary, with Elizabeth coming in a distant second. I suppose if Gone with the Wind were written in the 1980s, Scarlett’s name would have been Heather. Odd to think that in another forty years, youth will scorn that name as being old-fashioned, fit only for elderly women, like the name Effie is today.

I had fun naming my aged gangsters in Daughter Am I. In keeping with the times of their youth—bootlegger times, that is—I gave them nicknames that matched their characters. I called my wise old conman “Teach,” my dapper little forger “Kid Rags,” my ex-wrestler “Crunchy.”

And then there’s my hero, poor Mary. She starts out so young and innocent, and ends up on a road trip with six feisty old gangsters and one ex-nightclub dancer. I had not intended for her to keep the name Mary. It’s so not the name of a heroine of today! Nor is my Mary a medieval maiden. I named the character Mary Stuart after Mary Stuart Masterson in the film Bed of Roses because both Marys were strong but vulnerable when it came to love, both were very smart yet a bit naive. I never did change my Mary’s name. By the time I finished the book, the character and the name were inextricably entwined. At least it’s fairly innocuous. Like Margaret Mitchell, I could have named my heroine Pansy. Ouch.


This article is anthologized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.

“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

One Response to “Creating Incredible but Credible Characters: Names Matter”

  1. rami ungar the writer Says:

    I’ve often found out that my characters’ names have significant meanings. Aasif means “sorry” or “forgiveness”., which makes sense in his case. Zahara’s name means “light” and Jason Price will literally pay any price in order to further his goals. It’s very weird sometimes, because when I name them, I don’t intentionally give them names with significant meanings. Still pretty cool though.

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