Naming characters: hints and tips plus a fun quiz

Naming characters — there’s no single right way

naming characters - what is MY name cartoonAuthors have different ways of naming characters. Some label their key characters hero and heroine until they have finished the first draft, others need names for their characters before they can write a word.

(And some need to know all the character’s backstory before they start to write… But that’s another blog altogether.)

Joanna and names

cover My Lady Angel by Joanna MaitlandNames, for me, are integral to character.
Names can even be part of the plot.

In my early novel, My Lady Angel, the hero had two names —
Frederick, the name used by the father he had every reason to hate, and Max, the name by which his friends knew him. The difference between the two names, and the personalities that lay behind them, was a crucial thread of the story.

Cover A Regency Invitation by Cornick Maitland and RollsSometimes, naming characters doesn’t go particularly well. When I was working on A Regency Invitation, a three-novella joint story with Nicola Cornick and Elizabeth Rolls, I initially called my hero Will. But he hated it.
He sulked.
Co-operative? Not a chance.

His real name turned out to be Marcus and, once I’d changed it, he happily strode onto my stage and started talking. How did I know that his name was Marcus? I’m not sure. It just bubbled up from my subconscious.

And I knew it was right immediately. He did, too, blast the man! Talk about smug…

naming characters can be alchemy magic witchcraft

Naming characters can be magical

All this may suggest that naming characters is a sort of alchemy, a half-magical process where the author negotiates with her characters as if they were real.

It can feel like that, I’ll admit, but there’s also quite a lot of routine involved. And that’s where my writing tips come in.

Tips for naming characters: but only if the approach suits you

I stick to simple rules. If you like them, feel free to use them.
If you hate them, just forget them. Remember that every writer is different.

This is what I do:

  • make sure all characters’ names start with a different initial so there’s no chance that the reader will mix them up;
  • try to have first names of different numbers of syllables, especially for hero and heroine — go for Elizabeth and Tom, say, rather than Elizabeth and Christopher;
  • if possible, avoid names that end in -s or -es, like Bess, because the possessive can tie you in knots like “Bess’s best besom”
    (I broke my own rule with Marcus, I admit, but he insisted! I told you he was a bit of a handful, didn’t I?)
  • make sure characters’ names are appropriate for the period of the novel, whether it’s historical or contemporary; the name has to have been in use/in vogue at the time the character was born.

Sources for Naming Characters

One trick is to use royal names from the country where your book is set. For Britain, names like Edward, Henry, William and so on are usually fine.

Burke's Peerage 1938 source for naming charactersAnother trick is to check the names that real people of the time were using. You can find them in parish registers, contemporary letters and diaries, newspapers and so on.

Since I write mainly historicals, I don’t need to worry about modern names much. So I tend to rely on my battered old copy of Burke’s Peerage (vintage 1938) where I borrow first names from real people. Only problem is that the research can be so fascinating, I go on for hours when I should be writing 😉

burke's peerage 1938 extract for naming charactersThe picture on the left shows part of a random page. It’s for the Frederick family. If you can read the tiny print (click the photo for a larger version), you’ll see that John, the heir to the 5th Baronet, died of wounds received at Aboukir Bay, Egypt, in 1801. Burke’s is full of such fascinating and thought-provoking details.

Georgette Heyer use to pore over maps to find obscure place names for her characters. Fownhope (possibly the inspiration for Augustus Fawnhope in The Grand Sophy) is a Herefordshire village, for example. I regularly note down interesting place names from road signs. And you can always modify names by a letter or two, as Heyer did, turning them into something that never existed.

It can be wise to avoid using actual names, especially if you write contemporary stories and prominent people of the same name are still alive. Real people can and do sue.

Risks of Search and Replace

A Warning: if you decide to change Will to Marcus, say, do beware of unintended consequences of Search/Replace.

marry me note left with cup of coffee

No search/replace problems with this simple proposal

Your beautiful proposal scene, for example, might become something quite odd:

Hero (on bended knee) to heroine:
I love you, darling. Marcus you marry me?

Heroine (overcome with joy):
Oh, yes! Yes, of course I marcus.

Naming female characters:  Joanna’s fun naming quiz

In a previous blog about names, I included a quiz you could use to find the name of a male character. Visitors were amused, so today I’ve done a new version, for female characters.

How it works:
Find your birth DAY/DATE in column 1 or 3, your birth MONTH in column 5, and the final figure of your birth YEAR in column 7. Then read off your words from the columns alongside. So, if your birthday were, say, 10th July 1952, your character would be Strollbody the Governess.
If you don’t like the answer you get from your own birth date, make up a different birthday and try that instead.

If your birth date is: Your word
is:
If your birth date is: Your word
is:
If your birth month is: Then add this
ending to your word:
If your birth year ends in: Your character’s occupation is:
1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

 

mince

babble

fade

laff

chuckle

teeter

shiver

mutter

chortle

stroll

fumble

wilt

creep

fuss

tease

 

16

17

18

19

20

21

22

23

24

25

26

27

28

29

30

31

snigger

filch

trifle

sparkle

peck

mangle

pinch

lust

cackle

blossom

potter

pucker

darn

loiter

sizzle

spin

Jan

Feb

Mar

Apr

May

Jun

Jul

Aug

Sep

Oct

Nov

Dec

-ing

-pick or -wick

-ling

-ster or -er

-on or -ton

-worthy

-body

-bottom

-head

-flirt

-goody

-elle or -belle

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

0

cook

governess

washerwoman

brothel keeper

actress

wet nurse

gentlewoman

scullery maid

seamstress

lady’s maid

I quite like Sizzling the Cook, or Fumbleworthy the Brothel Keeper. Less sure about Blossombottom the Actress, but you never know. Have a go and see what you come up with.

Joanna Maitland, author

Joanna

Some of the material in this post appeared in a guest blog I did for Alison Morton back in 2015. I’m grateful to her for agreeing that I can reuse it.

12 thoughts on “Naming characters: hints and tips plus a fun quiz

    1. Joanna Post author

      Now, when I created it, I didn’t know you’d get an actress, Lesley. But Fadeling you never were, I’m sure.

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    Mincester the wet nurse! Great fun game. I do the Heyer thing – maps. Also Oxford Dicionary of English Christian Names, and Guinness Book of Names which is full of interesting treasures. Love naming characters. And I can’t start until I have at least hero/heroine named. Occasionally have to change them – like your Will/Marcus. Especially in a series when I’ve forgotten a name that’s already established and it’s too much like the one I’ve just chosen in a new book. Just had that happen!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Didn’t know you’d be a wetnurse, either Liz. I like just sticking a metaphorical pin into a table like this. It’s amazing what you can come up with. Mind you, some real names are just as far-fetched. I had a fellow-student at Uni whose real surname was Bosomworth. Me, I’d have tried to change it but I suppose she’d got used to the jokes by the time she had left school.

  2. Elizabeth Hawksley

    I really enjoyed this post, Joanna, particularly your rules for naming characters. It’s astonishing how many authors use the same initial over and over again, almost as if their brains become wired onto that letter. I recently came across a novel with characters named Jane, Janet, Jennifer, John and Joe – and a Miss Jeffries.

    I tend to follow Georgette Heyer and use place names for surnames. There’s a village called Stanton Lacy, I think in Shropshire, which she picked for Sophy Stanton Lacy – and it’s perfect. I’ve always wanted to have a Lord Luxulyan (from Cornwall) he’s a bit of a braggart and needs his comeuppance.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Do so agree, Elizabeth. I read a novel last week that had loads of characters whose names began with H. After a few chapters, I was totally confused. Brain wired onto letter sounds like the reason. I sometimes get wired onto a particular word and find I’ve used it several times in just a few paragraphs. But I usually notice when I’m editing and take them out again 😉

      Yes, there is a Stanton Lacy near Ludlow. I’ve followed Heyer too, using a place name and sometimes modifying a letter or two. My second book, A Poor Relation, has a hero called Lord Amburley. The place in question is Amberley, in Sussex. Love your Lord Luxulyan. Get him in quick before some other author pinches him!

  3. priscillaking

    Fun! “Priscilla King” is a brand to whom different “birthdays” have been assigned…Muttering the Cook? Chortlehead the Washerwoman?

    1. Joanna Post author

      Welcome, Priscilla. Muttering the cook is exactly the sort of character I need. Goes with Withering the Butler (a name I did have in a book). Washerwoman good too. Who would have been a washerwoman? Such a thankless and menial role.

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