What’s in a (character) name?

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As an author, choosing names can be one of the most fun aspects of writing or one of the trickiest.

An author can spend hours on baby name generators, or genealogy and history sites to come up with the perfect names―not only for their main characters, but every supporting character, the names of towns, and even fabricated company names. As an author, I’ve even ‘borrowed’ names from my friends, family and former students.

But why is naming so hard? For me, there are a few reasons.

Names are subjective and (often) have personal connotations for the reader

As a former schoolteacher, there are some names that I won’t touch with a barge pole, simply because they elicit memories of difficult students. Those names may be completely innocuous to most readers, but as I’ll spend the most time with my characters, they make the ‘no go’ list.

The same goes for names with varying ‘heat levels’. If I’m naming a sexy love interest, are some names off limits? Is Milo a hot guy’s name or a hot drink from Australia? Where will my readers land on Rupert (no for me) or Henry (yes for me―but only because of Cavill)?

And while I am a huge Keanu fan―and of course there are quite a few Keanu’s out there in the world, especially ones born after The Matrix came out in ‘99―it’s just too evocative of the Keanu that it’s on the ‘no go’ list too.

Names are ‘fashionable’ and ‘unfashionable’

As we know, names go in and out of fashion, with some names circling back onto the ‘fashionable’ list every other decade or so.

After the film, Splash, came out in the mid-80s, the most popular girls’ name for years was ‘Madison’―simply because a mermaid named herself after Madison Avenue in New York. Until then it was just a last name, but it might be perfect for a character born in the 80s.

And writers of historical fiction are limited even further. There probably weren’t (m)any Kylies or Kylos in the 1800s. As an aside, I have so much respect for historical fiction authors―all that research!

Names have to ‘fit’ the character

I’ve heard this from other authors, so I know I’m not the only one to do it, but sometimes I will choose a name for a character and as I am writing, I realise it doesn’t ‘fit’―that they are not an ‘Eleanor’, but more of a ‘Susan’. Of course, this ties back to my first point about names having connotations, but the name must suit the personality of the character, as it is one of the tools an author uses to evoke their characteristics.

In my 4th book, one of the characters is an actor and I’ve given him a stage name―his mother’s maiden name as his first name. And I got her maiden name from researching last names from Oxfordshire. I tried combinations of last names until I got one that just evoked ‘international film star’.

And many authors I know will name the villain or the antagonist after someone they’ve encountered in real life. It makes me wonder if there really was a ‘Hannibal’ in Thomas Harris’s life, when he penned The Silence of the Lambs.

When naming comes easily

Sometimes naming isn’t hard, like when a character arrives in my head (almost) fully formed, including their name. And some names are an homage to someone special.

In my 4th book, there are three main characters―best friends―and all their names begin with ‘L’, Lauren, Lisa, and Lucy. I have special friends with those names and writing their names into a book is a lovely way of honouring them. Even naming minor characters after people I know can a fun way to include them in my work.

So, next time a character’s name lands with you perfectly, or rubs you the wrong way, just know that the author may have agonised over that choice. And ask yourself if it hit or missed the mark because one of the reasons I’ve mentioned here.

Originally posted on Portable Magic as a stop on my blog tour for That Night in Paris.

6 thoughts on “What’s in a (character) name?

  1. I love picking out character names. Isn’t it funny how some names will always seem lovely (could there ever be a mean Sophie?). Names for the ‘bad guys’ are also fun. 😆 xx

  2. This is a great post. I am very careful with naming my characters. They hold such meaning. There is a strong connection to their personality and the name needs to feel right. As a teacher, too I agree about naming characters using past students’ names; I have been very fortunate that I don’t have too many of those students that bring back bad memories when a name is recalled. 🌸

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