Naming your characters, both main and secondary, can be difficult.
It can be difficult for you, as a writer.
Sometimes you paint yourself into a corner, especially with series characters, and end up hating those names halfway through your third book.
What the hell can you do?
Maybe they are too unique and stand out, and the readers think “There is no way that a parent named a child of theirs that name.”
Maybe they are too bland, and are quickly forgotten amongst the other characters in the book with better names, more personality, and stronger plot.
Luckily for me, I didn’t seem to have those issues when it came to naming Denton and Monty. I like the names, they have gravitas and meaning behind them, and, I think, that the names somehow match the personalities of the characters.Naming your novel's characters is intimate, personal, deliberate and sometimes just plain damn good luck. Here's how I named my characters. Grab some inspiration and run with it! Click To Tweet
How I Named Denton Ward
Note: From here on out there is information that might be considered slight spoilers. Tread carefully.
When it came to naming Denton, I remember that the first name came first.
Some readers may not know it, but Denton and Monty had their start in 1985 in a series of unpublished mystery stories with a somewhat cyberpunk feel. Several were submitted to EQMM and AHMM, but they were sent back with very generic notes of “No thank you.” I assume that the world in 1985 was not yet ready for my advanced mix tape of the two genres; their loss.
In 1985, I was stationed at RAF Greenham Common, in the UK.
On the weekends, or my days off, I would take the one hour train ride into London and go exploring, as Newbury did not have a great deal to offer, besides a really nice pub and a few antique stores.
One day, I was in a bookstore (maybe Waterstones?) and came across a haunting cover that has stuck in my mind ever since, “The Journals of Denton Welch”.
As you can see, it’s pretty striking, and I knew immediately that that was the type of look that I wanted for my haunted, tortured psychic. I have no idea who Denton Welch was, nor was I remotely interested, but I sure as hell stole his first name for my character.
The last name was much, much easier, and this is really where the slight spoiler warning above comes into play.
Here Be Monsters
If you know me, you know that I have been playing the Call of C’thulhu role playing game since the damn thing came out in 1981. There was a brief period of time where I couldn’t find anyone to play with me, but that’s not my fault. That’s their shortcoming. I’m very blessed to have a fine group of gentlemen that come over to my house once a month and we roll dice together.
If you have never heard of Call of C’thulhu, then I am sure that you have heard of Howard Phillips (H.P.) Lovecraft, who was the creator of the Cthulhu mythos, which the game revolves around. Lovecraft was underappreciated in his time, but his talent and reputation outlasted his short life, and he is generally considered one of the finest horror writers ever.
One of his stories had to do with a young man, from a prominent Rhode Island family, who has disappeared from a mental asylum. The basic plot follows the investigation of his disappearance by the family doctor. Of course, like all Lovecraft stories, this one does not end well, what with all the madness and such.
The name of the story?
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.
There you go, the other penny drops. Denton Ward.
Denton also has a history of mental illness, a stay in an asylum, and his past is somewhat mysterious and clouded at this time in the series.
How I Named Monty Crocetti
Now we come to the naming of Denton’s partner in life and in love, Montgomery Elaine Crocetti.
My little punk rock private detective was born about the same time as Denton was, and, like Denton, I knew what she looked like before she was even born.
The photo is of my working series binder, filled with notes from over thirty years of thinking and tinkering and putting together two characters that readers could love. I tore that photo out of a women’s fashion magazine (I assume) and have cherished it ever since. Unfortunately the page doesn’t come with the name of the magaizne or the month or year, but it was a hella long time ago.
That’s my Monty.
Like Armistead Maupin, Only Straight
When it comes to her name, the archetype of her character had its genesis in my first novel, which was written while still attending classes at San Francisco State University. I still have the solitary print out of the novel, some chapters of which I used for my advanced novel writing course, with notes from my instructor Phyllis Burke, saying “You are going to make it as a novelist”.
Some days, I believe her. Some days I do not. For the past 10 to 15 years, I have not.
Within the pages of that novel was a young punk rocker who worked at a bookstore in the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco. She had a masculine name, a masculine vibe, and didn’t take shit from the main character, which of course was why he loved her.
I wanted that same vibe for my detective.
So I gave her a masculine name, but didn’t want to give her the same name as the previous character. Monty, or Montgomery, was the first thing that came to mind. In my sight, the above young girl could have been a Monty.
Next up, why Elaine?
That’s my late mother’s name. She died when I was six, her frail little body racked and filled with cancer, her skin as yellow as a faded legal pad. I wanted to give her name to someone with strength, with fire, with compassion and love, to fight those imaginary fights that she could not fight.
I admit that this was the hardest part to come up with.
I knew a lot about Monty at this time; her childhood in a large Italian family in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. Her adventures in terrorizing the nuns and staff at the Catholic school she briefly attended, but still affects her to this day. I wanted her name to reflect a loving family. Something immediately recognizable.
As someone who has loved Sinatra and the Rat Pack for decades, when in doubt, or troubled, I always listen to some Frank. When I am happy, I play happy Sinatra songs, when I am sad, I play sad Sinatra songs. Like Seinfeld, you can always bring life back to Sinatra, like some sort of weird 7 Degrees of Kevin Bacon kind of thing.
No matter the mood, there is some Sinatra just for you.
Enter The King of Cool
Now, you can’t like the Rat Pack without loving you some Dean Martin.
We’ve all heard at least one Dean Martin song, and at least one Dean Martin quote about alcohol, liquor, or drinking, but did you know that Dean Martin wasn’t even his real freakin’ name?
I remember being stunned at finding that out, but in retrospect, it makes perfect sense. How could a man of such Italian descent, a man so tied together with the Italian community, have a name like Dean Martin?
It’s unpossible, as Ralph Wiggum would say.
Dean Martin was born on June 7th, 1917, as Dino Paul Crocetti.
How could I pass this up?
How could I NOT give my little girl some secret, sly tieback to Dean Martin himself?
I grabbed that last name and ran to the exits with it.
And there you go.
That’s how I named my two main characters.
They are mine and I love them and I hope to bringing them back to you soon.
Maybe I’ll be the only person who reads it, maybe millions will, it’s all good either way.
As novelists, we bring them into this world.
As readers, it’s up to you to raise them up and love them and share them with others.
Thank you, as always, for being part of my life.