Naming characters — there’s no single right way
Authors 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
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.
Sometimes, 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.
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 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.
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.
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 😉
The 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.
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
|If your birth date is:||Your word
|If your birth month is:||Then add this
ending to your word:
|If your birth year ends in:||Your character’s occupation is:|
-pick or -wick
-ster or -er
-on or -ton
-elle or -belle
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.
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.