Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Names by Carol G. Heilman

How does a writer of fiction name his characters?

Does he pull them out of thin air? Not likely.

Here are some possibilities and I’ve used them all.

  • Newspapers, especially the obits
  • Cemeteries 
  • Research 
  • Listening to music
  • Friends and family

Stu Summers, author of Summer’s Love, used his own name and his main character is a famous author. I’ve never met Stu so I can’t say if their personalities are the same.

That’s the key, I think. The name has to suit the character. Sometimes the name comes first, other times the personality. In Agnes Hopper Shakes Up Sweetbriar, a strong, handsome man, tan and muscular because he has labored in the fields, brings a basket of strawberries to the residents of the retirement home. I knew his name was Jack, but he needed a last name. One of the ladies on the porch that day swoons over his presence. He often has that effect on women. His girlfriend, Shirley Monroe, the manicurist at the Kut’N Loose, calls him “Baby.” Alice, who was also on the porch that day, thinks he looks like Jesus, because of his long, thick hair. His last name? Lovingood.

And his girlfriend? Shirley is a blonde and even though her hair is a mound of teased fluff, don’t be fooled into thinking her elevator doesn’t go to the top. She is full of practical wisdom that women often find in beauty shops. She is a large-boned woman with big feet. Her perfume is loud and so is her laugh. Her last name is Monroe because she reminded me of a long ago star named Marilyn.

And so it goes. Names are fun, but names are also important and not to be taken lightly. My main character living at Sweetbriar Manor, Agnes Marie Hopper, has the spunky spirit of my mother. I love the name Agnes, but the name Marie Hopper came straight from my mother. She never had a middle name so she gave herself Marie. Now that takes courage. Her maiden name was Hopper and somehow it just seemed to fit Agnes. She is small and petite yet strong and agile. She has red hair though it now comes from a bottle. She is a widow who still grieves for her husband, Charlie, who was a small tobacco farmer.

At the beginning of my story, Agnes lives alone, except for her pet pig, Miss Margaret, who is a great comfort to her. The name seems like a dignified, southern name to me. I first heard it used for a relative’s cat. I knew I would have to use it some day.

Where did your name come from? My daddy said he just “thunked mine up.” My sister’s middle name, Rae, came from a family friend. I have passed that name to my son as Ray.

Names are indeed important. How do you choose the names of your characters? I would love to hear your ideas and add them to my list.


Carol Heilman, a coal miner's daughter, married her high school sweetheart, a farmer's son. She began writing family stories, especially about her dad's Appalachian humor, for newspapers and magazines. One day her mother said, "We don't have any secrets any more!"

Carol's book series, Agnes Hopper Shakes Up Sweetbriar and Agnes Hopper Bets on Murder, was inspired by her mother's spunky spirit and her dad's humor.

She has recently moved, along with her husband of fifty-plus years, from the mountains of NC to Charleston, SC. They love to play cards, go antiquing, hike, and visit grandsons on the east and west coasts.