Friday, 11 December 2009

A Bella Too Far

So I’m on Facebook the other day…OK I’m on Facebook every day…and the very talented YA author Tabitha Suzuma announces her new book. Forbidden, a tale of taboo love between a brother and sister.
Now, knowing Tabitha and her exceptionally sensitive, beautifully written books, Forbidden will be a complete treat. But one thing caught my eye. The sister’s name. Bella.
Of course there’s nothing to stop anyone calling their heroine anything they wish. But Bella, in the face of Twilight’s massive success in the YA market seemed a little bold. On the other hand if anyone can reclaim the name it’s surely Tabitha. So I commented ‘Great that she’s called Bella.’
‘Why?’ asked an innocent Tabitha.
‘Ummm…you know…Bella ‘n’ Edward’
Cue for anguish, gnashing of teeth and requests for new name suggestions from Tabitha. She had never read Twilight. Nor, it seems, had her editors. Just as she’d thought the book was nearly finished one of the hardest aspects - the naming of characters - had to start again.
I always thought that I’d love naming characters. I love names - maybe it’s to do with having a slightly unusual one myself - by the way Keren is a completely different name from Karen, with its own Biblical pedigree (a daughter of Job, actually, called Keren-happuch) and definitely not a pretentious alternative spelling.
I enjoyed debating baby names with my husband, finding layers of meaning in our final choices. Surely naming characters would be the same?
Well, no. When you name a baby, you name a blank slate, and you find a name which reflects your history, your taste, your personality. Naming a character is somewhat different. You have a vague idea of what someone’s like, you’re still finding out about them, and you have to find the perfect label to convey that idea of a person - even though the naming process is nothing like that in reality.
You have to balance each name with the other names in the book. In Almost True there are two people who live together, and they had names which began and ended with the same letters. That wouldn’t do - but I didn’t want to change either name. In the end I had to sacrifice the less important character and search for a new similar name for her.
Then there was my Twilight moment. I had a character called Edward, which was just right. But then my characters started discussing Twilight. It’s someone’s favourite book (If you’ve read When I Was Joe I bet you can guess whose..) And I had to change Edward’s name.
Nothing felt right. I used the find/replace key, inserting Charles, Louis, Mark, Henry. All wrong. I thought about the character, his age, his family. I tried to imagine his parents, how they would have chosen his name. And then I tried out Patrick. Yes! It was as though he’d never been called Edward.
Similarly, Claire in When I Was Joe started out as Katie. But then her part in the book grew. I have a good friend called Katie. It began to feel weird writing about Katie the character. So she became Claire. My daughter sulked for ages. Ty’s mum, on the other hand is called Nicki, and I have another good friend called Nicky. It never bothered me – perhaps because of the one letter difference. But Nicki’s sisters are called Louise and Emma. I have friends called Louise and must be something about the character. Or maybe the friend.
At the moment I’m thinking about a new novel. I have hazy ideas for characters. They are vaguely labelled Lia, Jack, Daisy, Rafael and Theo. Jack’s already had a name change before a word’s been written about him, because a friend told me that my original choice - Jamie – was a girl’s name in the US. How many of the others will stay and how many will change?
I wait to find out - and I'd love to know how others go about the naming process in novels, blogs or real life. And any examples of books you read where a character's name just doesn't feel right?
UPDATE: A few hours after I wrote this, my husband was reading The Three Musketeers to our son. Who then declared that his favourite character was Grimaux - a servant,and very minor character 'because his name is so cool.'


  1. Hate the naming process (I give false names to the dates I write about) - usually just think of any old name. Might give it more thought now.
    Like the new look, and well done on your 50.

  2. 50? I'm not 50...Oh..fifty followers! Whooppee! Hello, Joe Layburn, fellow Frances Lincoln author. And not forgetting the 32 right at the bottom of the page. Nothing to compare to your 300+ though, Fish.

  3. I've chosen names and thought them innocent choices only to meet an acquaintance who says something like "that hideous character in your book has the same name as me." And I scrabble and flail around in my mind - was I unconsciously thinking of them? Surely not? Someone, Dickens? Austen maybe? got character names from gravestones and I've tried that. For Out of the Blue I got Kitty's surname, Danby from a street in Peckham. I had a Great Aunt called Kitty so I stuck with it but I nearly crumbled when Brothers and Sisters appeared on TV.

  4. Choosing names for characters - I haven't actually thought about how I choose them. They just appear :) I tend not to use the names of people I know though. Not sure why, I just haven't used them yet.

  5. The main characters in my manuscript are SS soldiers, but it's written for an English speaking reader. So the problem for me was finding names that were German but not overly so. First names were easy but last names took an age and in the end I just took the last names of my workmates, lol.
    You can only go so far to please the audience. ;-)

  6. OMG, you've called SS soldiers after your workmates? They'll love you..

  7. I think that I've thought more about naming after reading this post than I ever did before. I always like Katherine and Eleanor, mostly because of historical context and Robert and Alexander because they sound so steady. I'm struggling to think of bad names in books and can't. I'll have to check now!

  8. I have a notebook where I jot down things that sound like cool names for characters in the hopes that I will remember to turn to it when I'm stuck. This doesn't always work, and more than once I have caught myself giving a characters a name (first and last) that is (oops) very similar to someone famous.

    By the way, Keren, I've got a blog award waiting for you on my blog today.

  9. "OMG, you've called SS soldiers after your workmates? They'll love you.."

    You don't know my workmates, lol.