A reader asks:

What other names did you consider and how did you land on Arlo Finch?

I have a very hard time writing a character if I don’t love the name. So I obsess over picking the right one. I’ll spend hours staring in the middle distance, trying out various combinations until something clicks.

The right name would be especially important in this case. From the start, I was pretty sure the book was going to be titled some variation of Boy’s Name in the Place of the Noun, so I needed something appropriate for both a 12-year-old boy and a three-volume fantasy series.

For Arlo Finch, the last name came first.

I’ve always liked Finch, either as a first or last name. It’s been on my what-about list for years. It has the combination of feeling classic but unusual — I’ve never met anyone named Finch, but I wouldn’t be surprised to. Culturally, I’d believe that the family was American, possibly of English descent.

Of course, “finch” is also a kind of bird. I’m not much of an ornithologist, but I knew they were small and flitty. So I googled them.

Here’s a house finch:

brown bird

From the photographer’s description:

that look is the quintessence of cool plainness. “I am extraordinarily ordinary.”

Male finches can actually be quite colorful, but I really like the simplicity of this brown and tan female.

Finch happens to be the last name of the family in To Kill A Mockingbird. That’s a great pedigree. But it’s also related to my own family’s name.

My original last name is Meise, which is the German term for the bird we call a titmouse.

Here’s the tufted variety:

small bird

So the Finch and die Meise are both small flitty birds. They’re not the same, but they’re the same general idea. Since I knew the main character of the book was going to be a stand-in for my 12-year-old self, it felt right to give him a name similar to mine.

Once I had settled on Finch, “Arlo” came relatively quickly.

Working off a list of common boys’ names, I started by ruling out single-syllable names, like John or Jim or Rob. The staccato one-two of these names can certainly work (e.g. Huck Finn, John Wick, Tom Ford), but it didn’t feel right for this.1

Moving up to two syllables, you quickly realize that almost all boys’ names have the stress on the front half: DUH-duh rather than duh-DUH. But even within that pattern, there’s lot of variation on where your mouth ends up when finishing the weak syllable.

Try saying the following names out loud:

Liam Finch
Jacob Finch
Logan Finch
Joseph Finch

In the first two examples, the final ‘m’ and ‘b’ require you to put your lips together, which makes for a weird transition to the start of “Finch.”

The ’n’ of Logan is easier, but still requires a fair amount of tongue-repositioning for the ‘f.’

And Joseph Finch sounds like one word: jossefinch.

Ideally, you’d want to end the first name with a vowel sound so it would be easy to hit the ‘f.’2 But there aren’t many boys’ names that end in a vowel, and they tend to sound Old Testament-y:

Noah
Levi
Eli
Leo
Ezra
Jonah
Henry

Henry was a contender. It worked well with Finch, and was my father’s name. But it didn’t quite feel like the character. I ended up making Arlo’s best friend “Henry Wu.”

I found Arlo quite low on the list.3 I loved it immediately. Like Finch, it was a name that I’d never seen in the wild but certainly believed could exist.

“Arlo Finch” is easy to pronounce. The ‘o’ flows naturally into the ‘f.’ (Almost too naturally — some people hear it as “our loaf inch.”)

Typographically, its four letters look good together — an important consideration for a word that will show up multiple times on every page. And it balances really nicely with Finch when you see both words together.

I chose the name on October 29th, 2015. The next day, I set to work writing chapter one. Arlo’s sister became Jaycee Finch — another two-syllable first name ending in a vowel. His mom became Celeste Bellman Finch.

Months later, I discovered there’s at least one real person named Arlo Finch. But that’s not particularly surprising. There are quite a few Harry Potters and Tom Riddles out there as well.

Ultimately, what makes a name work isn’t that it’s unique, but that it uniquely suits the character. For this book, for this kid, I was really happy to find Arlo Finch.


book cover

Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire comes out February 6, 2018 in the U.S., with international editions available later in the year.

You can read more about the book at arlofin.ch.

 

  1. “Ray Finch” sounds like a private eye. “Bill Finch” sells insurance.
  2. A ‘r’ would also work. Yes, it’s a consonant, but at the end of a word it stays open like a vowel. “Roger Finch” is easy to say.
  3. The first name Arlo is #502 on this list, but has apparently risen to #299 for 2017. I have a hunch its popularity is going to continue growing, regardless of what happens with the book. It feels like a new Noah or Wyatt.