A Rose by Any Other Name . . .by Diana Savage

Diana Savage will be presenting a workshop at NCWA’s Renewal Conference. See end of post for details.


 Diana Savage “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” wrote William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet.

It might smell just as sweet, but if botanists had called it skunk cabbage, I guarantee florists wouldn’t sell as many bouquets on romantic occasions.

None of us had a say in the names we were given at birth, but we do have choices when naming our characters. Even if you don’t intend to imply age, ethnicity, or geographical region, the names you pick will do that without your permission. No doubt you can find a Billy Bob living in Manhattan, but you’d better have a good reason for the Southern-Boy/Yankee disconnect if you put such a character in your story. Ditto for Günter in Tokyo or José in Greenland.

Speakers and nonfiction writers don’t get off the hook, either. Every time you change a name to protect someone’s identity, you must select the new moniker carefully.

In elementary school, politically incorrect boys had a field day with my last name. “Indian Savage!” they’d shout, punctuating their laughter with Hollywood-style war whoops. I cringed and dreamed of the day I could change my name. Now I value it for its venerable British history that a cousin traced back to the year 1000. It’s also easy to pronounce and spell. So I embrace my surname and use it as inspiration in my brand-building tag: “Wild about helping you succeed.” In a novel, I could even adapt this personal experience as part of a character’s backstory to provide depth and motivation.

Without being cutesy and filling your stories with Rev. Pastor, Mrs. Homemaker, or Mr. Sinner (which is a real surname, by the way) to provide instant characterization, think of how certain names can aid in plotting or scene development. One example is the true story of a couple who had the surname of Angel. After stopping by a chapel, they called a cab. A half-hour later, it finally pulled up. “Sorry about the delay,” the driver said. “But when I read the message left on my board, I thought it was a hoax. It said, ‘Pick up two angels from the Methodist church.’”

Implying Age and Ethnicity

I once critiqued a book intended to help people build their careers, but it appealed more to those nearing retirement age. The first names in the author’s illustrations were popular among Boomers, not younger generations. It turned out that the author was almost old enough to draw Social Security, and she used names she was most familiar with.

Speaking of Social Security, the site www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames lets you find the most popular boy and girl names, up to one hundred per gender, for any given year since 18­­79. To find names that show ethnic heritage, search baby-name Web sites for specific nationalities or world regions.

Institutions Included

The names you choose for the organizations in your stories are also important. Would you entrust your hard-earned money to Lefty’s Savings and Loan? How long do you think the First Federal Tattoo Parlor would stay in business? When writing for the Christian market, also remember that church names reflect the groups they are seeking to reach. In my area, New Life, New Community, HighPoint, Quest, Mars Hill, and Generational Hope churches convey more contemporary styles than do traditional church names using saints, denominational tags, or the words cathedral and tabernacle.

Coupled with Titles

Sometimes the title that goes with a name is what makes or breaks the choice, as one woman discovered while visiting her son on an Army base. She asked her son’s colleague, “What rank are you?”

“I’m relieved to say that I’ve just been promoted from captain to major,” he responded.

“Relieved? Why?”

“Because,” he said, “my last name is Hook.”

By Hook or by Crook or by any other name you choose, you can reveal as much through what you call your characters as you can through what kinds of flowers they order from the florist.

A dozen skunk cabbages, anyone?


At NCWA’s Renewal Conference, Diana will be conducting two workshops: “Strategies for Beginning the Writing Journey” and “Writing for Chicken Soup and Other Compilations.”  Click conference button on right-hand sidebar for conference details.

Diana Savage, a full-time writer/editor, has been published since 1972, when, she would like you to believe, she was still in grade school. Her byline has appeared in nearly 100 Christian and general-market periodicals as well as several books, two of which are Chicken Soup titles. Her latest book, 52 Heart-lifters for Difficult Times, will be released by Harvest House in January 2014. She has been a member of NCWA since the 1980’s. Click here to visit her website.


2 thoughts on “A Rose by Any Other Name . . .by Diana Savage

  1. I love this. Names are particularly important to me as a historical fiction writer. I’m glad to see some of the old fashioned names coming back into style these days, but I wonder if writers will use them for fear of confusing the reader on the time period.


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