Swoon Author Shani Petroff: What's in a Name?

What's in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd...

I think a lot about what I’m going to name my characters—sometimes I hem and haw over what to call a specific character and other times it’s a split-second decision.

In real life I know a few Johns and Jonathans, several Jessicas, and so on, but in a book I don’t want characters with the same or similar names unless it’s a plot point. So I make a point to vary it. I try not to have too many characters whose names start with the same first letter or end in the same sound. If someone is reading quickly or glancing over the page, and I have an Emily and an Erin or an Emma, it may slow them down or cause confusion.

I also like the variety. Since Emily is my lead in Romeo & What’s Her Name, I decided not to have too many other characters’ first names end with a –y or –ee or –ie. Of the other main characters only Cody ends with a y. The others are named: Jill, Kayla, Wes, Dhonielle, Jace, Amanda, Neal, and Ryan.

How do I pick names?

Well, it varies. I like the site nymbler.com. You can enter a name you like and it shows you other names that have a similar feel. I know how old my characters are, and I look at lists of what names were popular in the year they would have been born. I look at my Facebook feed, my FB friends list (and sometimes the friends lists of friends) and sometimes see a name I fall in love with. I think of people I know or have met or appeared on a reality show I got sucked into. When I was starting to work on the pitch for My New Crush Gave to Me, I met a really handsome, charismatic man named Teo (who I totally embarrassed myself in front of—but that’s a story for another day), and the name felt perfect for my character. (Although while in this case the character also happens to be handsome and charismatic, usually if I use a real name, there is no tie between the characters’ attributes and the real person).

There are times I make it a point not to use the first name of someone I know. For instance, I tend to stay away from names of ex-boyfriends. I don’t want them to mistakenly think the character represents them. (Besides, if it were to be loosely based on them, I think I’d be a little more subtle!)

Sometimes people even offer up their name. That’s partially how Wes got the last name Rosenthal. I met up with a guy I had been close with in college, and we were talking about writing. The topic of naming characters came up. He said feel free to use his—so I did. His first name hasn’t made it into one of my books yet, but I’m sure it will!

The good thing about names is they are all around us. And when I’m not in the mood to actually sit and write, searching for characters’ names can be a fun distraction that still helps move my project along! 

Author spotlight

Shani Petroff

Shani Petroff is a writer living in New York City. She's the author of the “Bedeviled” series, which includes Daddy’s …

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