Monday, 7 May 2012

What's your name?

One of the things I thought would be the easiest things about writing books turns out to be one of the hardest. Why is it so difficult to name my characters?
It's not, as I fondly imagined, just a case of picking your favourite names and sprinkling them around. Naming characters is an intricate alchemy, part art, part science and the more books you write the more difficult it gets.
Some things to consider:
 - your character's age. Which names work for someone of their age, class, nationality and with those particular parents? Some authors make the mistake of thinking that the names of teenagers when they were teens (in my case Tracey, Susan, Dave, Gary) are still used for teens today. Others pick the names they'd give a baby now and apply it to a 16 year old.
 - the  names of other characters in your book. It's just too confusing to have Kieran, Kevin, Kerry and Karen in the same book. Oh how I wish I'd remembered that when I named Claire and Carl in When I Was Joe.I had to rename Edward in Almost True when Claire started wittering on about took me ages to find and love the name Patrick.
 - the names of your friends, your friends' children, your children's friends, your family.  Claire in When I Was Joe was originally called Katie..but I have a good friend called Katie. When Katie's role grew, the weirdness of her being called Katie provoked a rethink, and she became Claire. My dad's name is Joseph, called Joe by non family members, but Joseph in the family. Quite a few people think I named my book after my dad.
 -  how to pronounce the names you've chosen. I got somewhat fed up with the number of people - my agent, my writing group -  who called Raf (from Lia's Guide) Rafe. In the end I made a point of explaining it in the text.
 -  How the name works internationally. Jack in Lia's Guide was going to be Jamie, until a friend told me it was a girls' name in America.

Some people use baby name guides to find character names, I prefer Facebook (just find a connection of the right sort of age and look at their friend list). Another very useful tool is a new blog which maps baby naming patterns for England and Wales since 1996. Want to know how many girls were called Champagne in 1996? This is where to find out (that it was zero, interestingly enough). 

Sometimes people name characters after friends or colleagues or important people in the children's book industry. I have a plant in Another Life which, I am reliably informed, bears the same name as a plant owned by a Carnegie judge...which Carnegie judge I am not entirely certain...anyway it has to work, doesn't it?

Sometimes I ask Twitter. People are only too happy to help, sometimes volunteering their own names, never mind the character. This is how my sometime colleague Marcus has ended up with TWO characters named after him -  a whinging failed X Factor winner in Lia's Guide and a whinging stoner in Another Life.The real Marcus is nothing like either of his namesakes, I hasten to add.

I've been asked by kids I know to put them in a book -  which is fine, but it has to be the right kid and the right book. Keja, you made it into Another Life -  but I changed the spelling to reflect how you pronounce your name. Sorry!

Sometimes writers suffer retrospective naming regret once a book is in print, and  can hardly bear to be reminded that they once thought that 'Graham' or 'Trevor' was a cool name for their hero. Others only realise after the book is published that Alistair is spelled Alastair for half of the book *whistles casually and walks away from the scene of the crime*.

The problem is that often you're called upon to name a whole bunch of people all at once, so all the fun of picking names evaporates in the panic of finding the right names that all go together without losing the thread of what you want to say about them. Pick the wrong name just sounds wrong. It spoils the character. It puts you off.

I'm naming characters right now. I have a Sadie and a Hannah -  two names I love, but both are the names of friends of my children, both will probably have to change. I have a Tom -  feels wrong, may grow on me. And there's Emmy, who is perfect. For the moment.


  1. I'm glad it's not just me that finds this the hardest thing of all! Another reason I often go back to my Big Historial Project, as everyone already has a name - though unfortunately the Romans tended to re-use the same names all the time so I still end up agonising over which name to use to refer to a particular character (the worst being Tiberius Claudius Nero, ancestor of the emperors Tiberius, Claudius and Nero but a completely different person from any of them!)

  2. So funny that Sadie and Hannah are teenagers in london in 2012. I had great-aunts called Sadie and Hannah who were teenagers in 1912. That whole Victorian trend. I have seen some 1930s names trending after Harry Potter characters. And eventually even JK had to insert a lesson on how to pronounce Hermione. I think if a family of teenagers turned up at their new school called Doreen, Malcolm and Dierdre - that would be a whole book in itself.

  3. I love names, and always thought I would just pick my favourite names to name characters in stories I write, but I realised that the name has to suit the character! Sometimes I pick a name I'm not crazy on, and give it to the bad character, because I feel it reflects their personality! But I could never use a name I truly hate - I wouldn't be able to stand looking at it all the time when I'm writing. Fantastic,nteresting post!

  4. I have a fabulous book called The Guinness Book of Names by Leslie Dunkling, published 1995, which has - among much else - top 50 lists for each decade from 1925 to 1995, and a few earlier ones too (between 1700 and 1900) plus a big section showing name fashions between 1900 and 1990. I've used those so often in naming characters! I can't write without a name for a character and I hate it when a magazine changes it. I also remember seeing friends eyeing my collection of baby names books in the days before I had children, and pointedly not commenting, clearly thinking ... how sweet, they're Trying For A Baby. Nope, just trying for a character!
    Great post - I love hearing how others do it.