How NOT to Name a Character (OR: The Hairy Ape Man)

When writing what turned out to be Lost without You, I made one crucial mistake naming the hero. See if you can spot it.

The following is how I went about deciding on his name:

1. Think about the type of first name I want.
I don't want a long name. One syllable sounds good. It needs to be a strong name fitting a strong, male lead, but not a harsh one, like Butch. It needs to be likable and warm, but not wimpy.

2. Come up with names like that.
I think through names of guys I know personally and as acquaintances and try them on for size. I look at name tags at grocery stores and restaurants. Eventually I remember a gal from high school whose boyfriend was named Greg. I hardly knew the guy, but I like the name and decide to go with it.

3. Be far less demanding with the last name.
Mentally, I go through neighborhoods I've lived in, up and down the streets, thinking over the names of the families who lived in each house: Ferguson, Stringham, Lambert, Tolman, Van Dyke, Stevens.

Hey . . . Stevens. I like that.

4. Try the last name out with the first name.
Greg Stevens.

Me likey! The hero is christened Greg Stevens.

That's seriously how I came up with his name. Did you catch the step I missed? No?

Some back story that will help explain:

My parents presided over the Finland mission from the time I was 10 to 13. During that first year, we had an elder who was, apparently, quite good looking. At least, a lot of the sister missionaries thought so.

I took their word for it; I was ten, so boys still had cooties, and I couldn't see what they were so enamored over. I mean, he was nice. He could play the guitar well. But from where I stood (somewhere around four feet tall), he was big and hairy: a nice, musically talented ape man twice my age.

Okay then. You can probably see where this is going. Several months after Lost without You came out, some of my parents' former missionaries dropped by, and my new book came up in conversation:

"Oh, your daughter must have had a crush on Elder Stevens like everyone else did since she named her hero after him."

When my mom told me about it and asked if that's where I got the name, my eyes flew open the size of dinner plates.

I had a what on Elder Stevens? But his first name wasn't . . . was it? Oh, no, it was Greg. All of these missionaries who'd practically been extended family, faux brothers and sisters to me, thought I'd had some crush on one of them? No, no, no, no, no!

To this day, there are probably a couple of dozen women (and likely men) who served in the Helsinki mission circa 1984 who think I had a crush on Elder Stevens.

So, did you figure out my mistake?

Yeah. Before you commit to a character name, scour your brain and your past for anyone, anywhere who you've run into at any time that might share the name. People will assume the character is named after them, and no amount of protesting will change that.

So Veli Stevens, if you're reading this, um, hi! You don't show up in my first book, I promise. When I started writing the thing, I'd been home from Finland much longer than I'd been alive when we got there, and our missionaries' names were the farthest things from my mind.

And, um, sorry I didn't have a crush on you or anything. It was nothing personal.

Edited to add: Turns out that my hero didn't have the exact name (further evidence that any connection was purely coincidental): our missionary's last name was actually Stevenson, not Stevens. His wife was pointed to this post, so they both know all about it (read her comment below!). Elder S is as nice as ever and got a kick out of the post.


3 Bay B Chicks said…
Hilarious tale of how your hero's name came to be. Just goes to show that no matter how hard you try, you just can't get away from your matter how much you may think you have "forgotten."

A great tale of self-realization. Thank you!


PS: My word verification for this post is awake. How fitting! :)
Don said…
I like adding a Google search to my character name vetting routine. That way I can make sure I don't use a name already claimed by some character on a popular-but-unknown-to-me sitcom or something.
Brooke said…
Wow, that's embarrassing. I always scour my brain when naming my children for anyone I know with that name. My son's name is one that both my husband and I really liked, but I had a boyfriend in sixth grade with that name, so I was hesitant to use it. So, we spelled it just a tad different. Now, no one can spell my son's name right. Sigh. Sometimes you just can't win.
Luisa Perkins said…
SUCH a great story. Someday I should write a post about my big character-naming mistake in my first book.

I swear by my baby name book when coming up with possibilities (I like to know what my chosen name means), and I also do an online search during the 'scouring' step.
Kristina P. said…
I didn'y even know missionaries had first names!

I'm sure I would have made the mistake while writing my award winning novel too.
Melanie J said…
That's so funny. One of my critique partners just pointed out that I named a minor character of mine after a minor action movie star and another partner pointed out that I named my hero after the chief of the LAPD. Time to do a little Find and Replace work!
Heidi Ashworth said…
If it helps, I totally believe in your hotly protested innocence. I was in a critique group with a published author who, once upon a time, realized that every single one of her charcter's names started with an "S". Frantic, she called her editor but it was too late, far far far too late. I hope I learned from her mistake (tho I do have two main characters whose names start with "A" and though I did catch it before it went to print, I liked the names too much to change them at that point).
Rebecca said…
That is hilarious! I'm sorry to laugh at your pain, but it really was funny. At least he wasn't someone you went to high school with or anything.
Summer said…
HAHAHA! That is so sad and funny at the same time.
Annette Lyon said…
Rebecca, No kidding. There are certain names--particularly from high school--that will never see the pages of a book. Ever.
Sue said…
Oh, man. That made me LAUGH. Thanks Annette. :>
Josi said…
Yeah, I've done that--or something close enough to it to embarass myself. I'm much more careful now.
Erin said…
I dated a guy named Greg in high school. Therefore, my husband hates the name. I'm sorry for the frustration with the hero in your book! Did Greg Stevens want a percentage of your royalties? :)
Ah, let 'em think what they want as long as they keep sending you the royalty checks.

Heidi's story about the Ss is funny though, I find that a disproportionate number of my characters have J names. I'm working on that.
Lara said…
And this is why every book has the little disclaimer in front "All characters are fictional; any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental."

Too funny. I'm sure it could have been worse. Just keep your fingers crossed that Elder Stevens (or his wife and mother...) isn't a big reader.
That's funny (for everyone but you) Love Lara's comment about the disclaimer. Even though I don't think a person with the same exact name would believe the disclaimer. (:
How funny. I think naming characters is actually harder than naming my kids.
Jami said…
You poor, poor woman! In all fairness though it is a pretty common name. It could apply to lots of guys. Google it. You'll feel better.

I live in fear that I will do that someday. Now I can never write fiction again. Or all the guys will have to be named John Smith. He can get together with Jane Doe!
Jan said…
No way. That is so funny. I would have done something exactly like that though.
Annie Valentine said…
You know you will never live that down. You could blog about that every week for the rest of your life and people would still snicker. I am so feeling your pain, I've done this kind of thing (although not in such a huge, permanent black and white fashion. Is that bad to say?)

BTW, my sister and I both keep a baby name book handy when we're looking for names. It's so much more efficient, and you wouldn't believe the names you forget to consider.

PS - maybe he's old and ugly now and your book made him feel hot and special once more. Consider it an act of service...
Julie Wright said…
I named the bad guy in a book after my ex fiance . . . what WAS I thinking . . .
Karlene said…
Ha Ha! I find names by reading the credits on movies and tv shows, then doing a mix and match.
That really is too funny. I've unconsciously used people's names too. Like my friend Kim pointed out that her name showed up in two of my novels.

I didn't purposely name people after her, but who knows, maybe I talked with her on the phone or something right before I named the character.

Now I purposely name characters after people. Hey, it makes them more likely to buy the book.
LOL...OHMYGOSH that is too funny!!! That is something that would happen to me for sure!

Thanks for the laugh Annette!
HAPPY NEW YEAR~! Come get your free 8x10 David Bowman print! Hurry it ends soon! You need to post and e-mail David by noon Jan. 5th :) Hope you are having a beautiful Sunday! ♥ Hugs :) Shauna
Heffalump said…
I made up a series of bedtime stories for my kids and found out that the name I chose for the main character is shared with a helper of Sinter Klaas in the Netherlands. There went my idea of publishing it someday. The name was very crucial to my story, ans I don't know that I could change it and have the story work.
This is funny. I don't think you can completely avoid it though. Unless you use a name like Alexandergorganzola Markintinkton.

I have a character in one of my books name Morgan. He's often referred to by his friends as Captain. I had no problem with this until someone pointed out that Captain Morgan is a rum.
Becky said…
Too funny--and a good lesson learned! Good thing for me there are not many character names in non-fiction books!
Sants said…
We totally know Greg Stevens (sort of his name) and his lovely wife and beautiful family now.

Just to really freak you out, our family had a foreign exchange student from Finland and after he went home he joined the church about 1984-ish. He is a bishop there now.

What a small, small world.
I think this is my first time at your blog, though I've "seen" you at many other blogs I frequent. This is a very funny account, and reminds me of picking baby names. My husband was the naming Nazi. No matter what name I would come up with, he would hack it apart with inappropriate rhyming words, or one of millions of negative name associations from his past. I guess it's a good thing though, because I probably would have picked a name that some ex-boyfriend weirdo would have taken credit for. :)
Kristine said…
Hello, this is the hairy ape's wife, Kristine! I'd heard this story during a dinner with the Larsen's and your parents a few years ago, but I loved hearing it through your own words. If you don't mind, I posted the link to your story from our family blog. Great story! Thanks for sharing! Veli Stevenson says, "hello!"
Kimberly said…
Oh Annette! I'm sorry, but that made me giggle like mad! Thanks for the advice!
Anne Bradshaw. said…
Reading Kristine's comment made me laugh even more :-) Would love to know what Greg said.
Very funny, Annette. I enjoyed meeting you at the BYU Women's Conference yesterday.

And for those of you who start your character names with the same letter, I finally had to make up aa A-to-Z form so I would stop doing that. I think I posted itat my website (If I didn't already, I'll make sure I do), but it's easy enough to type up the alphabet down a page and then write in your character names. I was amazed at how many times I would use J or M (those are apparently my two favorites).
Krista said…
Ha ha! Oh my.

I like to use a baby name website for first names and think of the genealogical background of a character for last names. But I also consider family members (usually my many cousins) who might not mind having their name in a book. Just not their full name.

Poor Elder Stevens. Big, hairy Elder Stevens.

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