Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Naming Characters

The last of my posts for the recent poll!

This post was really Steve's idea, as he knows all too well the frustration, annoyance and general lunacy that can inflict me when I'm trying to name characters. The fact is, when you've written well over fifty stories, you kind of start running out of names you like and kind of start having to reuse them. But the problem with reusing names is that, with me at least, I start associating the old character's personality with the new one. 

You know how you might have a friend called Tom, who's completely childish and stupid, and you just can't name a character Tom because you know you'll start thinking of him as childish and stupid? Yep. That's my problem. And a name has to be right, has to suit the character to a T, otherwise he or she lacks that authentic ring.

So how do I name characters, and what qualities do the names have to possess?

   1. Top of the list: I have to like the name. I can't name a character HotStuff McLean (no offense to anyone called Hotstuff McLean) when I know that won't let me take him seriously.

   2. I prefer names that aren't terribly common. In ECHOES, for instance, some of my characters are named Echo, Sean, Erik, Matthew, Mina and Declan. Most of which aren't unusual names, but you don't hear them every single day. They're not Tom or Harry or Emily. All of which I like, but I just know too many Toms, Harrys and Emilys to be able to separate their personalities from my characters.

   3. When I attach a name to a character, they have to click. If there's no sudden spark, it just doesn't work. I know. I'm fussy.

   4. The name has to, obviously, be appropriate to the character's race/gender/religion/ethnicity/nationality, though I will admit I bend the rules for this one as far as I think is reasonable and believable.

   5. For some characters, a name with iconic literary, mythological or historical connotations is just perfect if that's the kind of irony or impression I want to convey. My first choice for a last name for Sean, in ECHOES, was Holmes (because he shares many Sherlock-ian qualities), but I decided in the end to scrap that and to use the comparison in a more natural way through the text. By pointing the comparison out in the actual text, I've opened up room for foreshadowing and irony that Sherlock Holmes fans will appreciate (I think) and those who know nothing about the stories won't be any poorer off.

   6. The actual process: I look through lists and lists of baby names, often narrowing them down by gender or nationality or origin. I ask Steve for suggestions and then shout at him when he gives me ones I don't like. (As I've said before, his patience with my writerly whims is legendary.) I pick names I like, try them out for a few paragraphs, and then change them when they don't work.

   7. Sometimes I get really lucky. A couple years ago, I wrote a novel called NO DREAMS IN WHITESHIRE. When thinking of the main character, I didn't even have to try thinking of a name: somehow, the name Jake Quin popped into my head, utterly unbidden and utterly free of any outside influence. I swear I wanted to open a bottle of champagne and serenade my brain. Often, though, this is the exception rather than the norm.

How do you name your characters? How do you pick that right name? What requirements do these names have to meet, or are you less fussy than I am? And to those of you who don't write but love to read, how important are character names to you? Do you remember them better based on anything?


  1. stage 6 goes on until i get shouted out. usually after a suggestion like ethelred and bob. oh well. one day i'll think of a character name you like.

  2. lol@steve ;)

    i like your method of naming characters, and follow a similar process... if i don't like it, it gets dropped

  3. i agree with laughingwolf. i love your process! i'm not a writer, but i find that my fav. character names are ones i can never hear again without thinking of that character. like luke. luke = star wars to me. more than twenty years on.

  4. You have an award waiting on my blog!

  5. I wrote a post myself, Sangu, on the choosing of names when I write. You might be interested in it. Here's the link :

    Oh, and don't forget tomorrow's Internal Conflict Blogfest. I'm looking forward to reading yours. Due to work constraints, I had to post mine early. Thanks for visiting as often as you do, Roland

  6. I often rename my characters. In my paranormal romance, my main character started out as Petula, but all my readers hated it. (I think they were saying it as Pe-TOOL-ah instead of PETCH-u-luh) I ended up changing it to Zoe, which was my grandmother's name and one I've always liked. Alexander started life as Andrew, but then I met an asshat named Andrew that ruined it for me.

    In my new sci-fi romance, the dominant race on their planet are telepathic, so their names are all concepts, rather than sounds. Since they name the humans (the slave race), their names are things like Rain (my heroine), Lash, River, etc.

    I think because I have such an unusual name, I really don't like to use very common names in my fiction, particularly for the women. I suppose I don't mind so much for the men!

  7. i like to name my characters something that's out of the ordinary, often using Japanese sounding names. this way i don't associate my character with others.

    but sometimes Japanese names don't wor, and it takes me a long time to decide on names i like...

    i google name generators and go through baby books. at least you have someone to collaborate with, which makes you lucky...

  8. That's odd, I thought I left comment... But I can't see it.
    I also like rot13 and backwards spelling for creating fictional names.

  9. Wow, it's so interesting to see how people have different and similar processes for this. I'm glad most of you seem to put a lot of thought into getting that right name - I always thought I was just super-fussy!

  10. Hmm... I guess my comment got lost.
    Just in case it doesn't show up again...

    Approach wise, I do the same things you do (a couple of different specifics)... but I don't worry about it, it seems to come naturally. Maybe that's from being so used to making up stories on the fly.

    There have been a couple of posts on this subject, or similar ones that you might be interested in having a look at.

    Addresses below:

  11. I'm with #3 - it has to click for me. If I try to write with a generic name, until I come up with *the* name, I just can't. Sometimes a name will pop into my head, but other times I pull up Google and start typing in things like "names that mean...[insert random personality trait]"

    And slightly off-topic, I was reading earlier posts and I remember your first line from the "first line" contest Jim had on the Dystel and Goderich blog - I thought it was great...very memorable!

  12. Alesa, those links were brilliant, thank you!

    Jennifer, wow, you have an amazing memory! That was such a fun contest! Thank you, I'm glad you liked the line, I was rather fond of it myself (fond enough to start a new book because of it...)

    And yes, I often Google names depending on the meaning I want. Don't want to accidentally call a character something that means 'toe dirt'.