Naming Characters

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What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. – –William Shakespeare

People at book club presentations have been asking me to explain the process I use for the naming of characters. Although I am certain that other writers have their own secrets for naming their characters, my approach simply comes down to check and respect.

  1. When I am envisioning my characters, I spend weeks thinking about all of their qualities, including what they look like, who their parents are, where they grew up, how they dress, their friend group, quirks and idiosyncrasies, and so forth. Each of their names, is a key component of this visioning process. I have to know their name before they become fully developed and I can begin to write about them.
  2. The exception to this occurs when I deliberately choose to leave a character nameless. I don’t do this very often but occasionally I have found that a nameless figure emphasizes the trajectory of the story in an impactful way. When I was writing about symphysiotomy in A Love Story (a piece in The Marzipan Fruit Basket), I left the main characters without names because they were composites of people who were actual survivors and I wanted the piece to reflect that by remaining universal.
  3. When writing historical fiction, I rely heavily on historical accounts and peerage books to find names that are consistent with the period and location of my work.   I try not to “borrow” a complete name but will select a given name from one entry and match it with a surname from another entry. In this way, I avoid using a historical person’s identity for a fictional character.
  4. When writing fiction that is connected with a specific era, I often “google” something like “popular girl names of 1950s”. The information provided gives me a list from which to choose a name that reflects the times, and adds to the verisimilitude of the character. I also consult a Baby Name book which provides the history, meaning and significance of a name. Cultural heritage considerations can easily be kept consistent by ensuring the name chosen aligns with its evolution. If a name has a particular meaning such as “brave” or “beautiful one”, I ensure that the descriptor matches the qualities of my character.
  5. Something I like to check is that the name chosen is not commonly associated with a famous person. I don’t want to distract my readers by naming a character after someone in history or popular culture, unless it would add to the intention of the story as a whole.
  6. Other things I like to check include the following:
  • How does this character’s name work with the other names in the story?
  • Is there too much assonance (i.e., Tim, Tip, Tom, Tish)?
  • Do too many of the names sound the same (i.e., Laura, Lauren, Laurel, Lorie)?
  • Do too many of the names have a similar configuration (i.e., Soren, Loren, Daren)?
  • Will readers be able to experience the characters as separate and distinct from one another?
  • Will readers be able to pronounce and remember the main character’s name?
  • Does the sound of the name match the character’s personality (i.e., would you name a vivacious teenager in the twenty-first century, Hildegaard?)?
  • Does the character have alternate names or nicknames that work within the framework, as needed (i.e., Alistair could be Al or Ali)?
  1. When I’m working on a large writing project (i.e., a manuscript for a novel), I maintain a character list that states key information for use as a quick reference. The following is a partial extraction from my novel, Eleanor Courtown:

Main Characters (these get full descriptions)

Dr. Robert Stewart is a Scottish-born, Edinburgh-trained Surgeon. He is a proud, hot-tempered, and gentle man who works hard to fight incidents of bush medicine and quackery. He is bright, committed to his profession and genuinely able to recognize the goodness in those around him. He falls deeply in love with the much younger Eleanor Courtown, and offers himself as a protector.

Orange Hill Residents

BROWNE, Finn – breeder of Kerry beagles

BURRIDGE, Jack – father of many children

CAREY, Jack – Lilian’s second husband

CAREY (nee MCDONOUGH, nee COURTOWN), Lilian or Lily

Wexford Residents

Sullie – Eleanor’s lady’s maid

Seamus – Gardener at Rosslare Hale

MEAGHER – George Courtown’s manservant

McAULEY, Hugh – Ghillie at Rosslare hall

FINNIGAN, Mrs. – housekeeper at Rosslare Hall

Flurrie – brother to Sullie

  1. You may also consider collecting names for your characters. You can do this electronically, on index cards or Post-it notes, as you wish. I often save names that I encounter (and also place and street names) with a view to incorporating them in a writing project at some future time. Only very occasionally, the name of the character comes first and becomes the starting place for a short story. I let them “brew” while they continue to develop into a fulsome character and wait until their story is ready to be told.
  2. Charles Dickens developed a cast of characters that resonate through history. He gave them names like Mr. Bumble, Mr. Merdstone, Mr. Pecksniff, Ebenezer Scrooge, Miss Havisham, and Mr. Fezziwig, for instance. These names embody the personality and traits for each of the characters but also sound, for all of their delightful nonsense, parodic and ridiculous. If you want your character names to be realistic, you need to avoid choosing names that border on the humorous or ironic (i.e., Pete Moss).
  3. I have often been tempted to “revenge name” a character (i.e., name a despicable character after someone who has hurt me or whom I dislike). I would caution you against doing this, despite the entertainment it may provide. Words hurt, and can damage relationships irrevocably.
  4. As a final note, there are many free online name generators available on the internet. They are fun to play with if you are having difficulty selecting a suitable name.

I hope this is helpful to your own writing. Send me a message and let me know!

Lucy E.M. Black