Naming characters, I find, can go one of two ways: either ludicrously easy or nigh impossible. Some characters arrive in your head, fully formed, chatting away, named and ready for you to jot down. Most however are trickier. You wear out the ‘find and replace’ function as you flick through Maisy, Morgan, Mimi. You eventually make the mistake of replacing every ‘Meg’ with Maddie and you end up with Maddieabucks, oMaddiea 3, nutMaddie and that’s a morning’s worth of unravelling right there. I’ve changed names part way through a manuscript, thinking I’d go back and change the earlier chapters and have had some very confused beta-readers as a consequence, asking who this new character is who has turned up unannounced on page 53.
Names can give useful information about your character:
- Their nationality or ethnicity
- Their background or social standing
- It can have a meaning which hints at their characteristics
- It can place them in a particular time in history
- It can denote their sex, or keep it hidden with a generic ‘Sam’ or ‘Chris’
A character’s name can tell you more than a name in real life (although I did have two swimming teachers called Mrs Waters and Mrs Fish #truestory) so use the opportunity to say something about your character (think about Miss Honey and Miss Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s Matilda). You can also use names for comic effect.
As I write for children, and also struggle with hard to sound-out names (who else is regularly confused by Siobhan?) I try to choose names that are easy to work out. This doesn’t mean familiar. One of my recent characters is called Hetal, a name I’d never heard before (until I had an ebay delivery from someone with that name) but it is still an easy name to decipher. Which brings me onto pinching names. If you come across a name you like, or you think is distinctive or unusual or gives your brain that glow of inspiration, write it down. I have dozens of scraps of paper lying around with scribbled names of characters I’m yet to meet.
Another thing to do is check online to see if the name you’ve chosen is associated with anything you might not want to be linked to. Be aware that names of famous people will immediately conjure up a mental image for your reader, which is fine if that’s what you want to build on, but you will have to work doubly hard as a writer to undo that impression if your character is different to the celebrity. For a sledgehammer of an example: an Adolf would be challenging to paint in a positive light.
As when naming children, check initials, check that the name goes with the surname, check it doesn’t clash with or sound similar to your other characters’ names, check it can be shortened to something you don’t hate because as with children, you’re hopefully going to spend a lot of time thinking about, writing and saying that name. And as with children, your character will often grow into the name, making it more completely theirs than you ever imagined when you picked it.
Image courtesy of Freepik.com / asierromero