A rose by any other name…

rose copyWhen it comes to ideas of what to write about, I am never short of ideas. One of my main problems is choosing one from among the many ideas flashing around my brain at any given moment. I can usually get a quick grasp on the most important elements of my characters; I can see the settings, hear the noises and smells the smells, but the element of writing I find the most difficult is choosing names for my characters. How do people do it?

I invariably call every male character Mike or Dave and the females are usually Louise or Hannah. And if I have more than two characters of each gender, I panic. When I realise that I’ve used the same names again I then get so hung up on finding the “right” name that writing grinds to a halt. It’s a problem.

I had a kid’s book idea plotted out years ago that I was going to write for my daughter – no, YOU finish it! – and I named the characters after places I passed on the road between Glasgow and Aberdeen. I still like those names, but they’re more suitable for a fantasy story so I’m unlikely to use them unless I ever get around to writing Amber Moon. Such is my struggle with naming I’m keeping these beauties to myself, just in case.

My work in progress is set in Italy (although that might change as I’ve had a eureka moment) and I’ve had the devil’s own job to come up with Italian names. Strewth, I thought finding character names in English was difficult. This Italian job is having me throw my tiramisu at the wall.

I had a story published in The People’s Friend several years ago and while the editor kept the title, she changed a couple of the character names. I don’t blame her. Hers were better than mine. But I can’t go on expecting other people to find appropriate names for my characters.

The first time I realised that character names were important was in an English lesson at school. I can’t remember the name of the book we were reading, but our teacher asked us why we thought a character had been named Jenny Ascot. We had no idea but when the teacher suggested it was because Ascot had associations with poshness and the upper-class and that, perhaps, the writer was telling us something about the character by giving her that name, a whole new world of understanding opened up before me. I suppose that was the moment at which I started reading critically, looking for all that the writer was trying to tell me with their words. Sadly, it was also the point at which finding names for my own characters changed from being pot-luck-Petes to deep-thought-Debbies. And I’ve faced this dilemma ever since.

Thanks to the wonder of social media, I asked my lovely writer friends how they found appropriate names for their characters and these are their suggestions.

“I use Twitter to find character names.” ~ Helen Walters

“Obits are a great source. I also keep a file of interesting names that I can mix and match.” ~ Avery Caswell

“Baby books, and researching names that might match the theme of the book/story. I choose the names I like the sound of, generally” ~ Lisa Shambrook

“I use names from the book titles/authors on my shelved, mixed up.” ~ Vivienne Tuffnell

“I’m boring, I just use what I have in my head until I hit on something that works. Once I have a first name I like then the surname follows quite easily as I like names to have a sense of rhythm.” ~ Abi Burlingham

“Cemeteries, friends lists on Facebook, Latin plant names, astronomy charts, shop names, maps of street names and places, foreign language dictionaries. Now, that is. During first draft I picked the first names that popped in to my head.” ~ Karen Wilde

“I start with the background of the character (where and when they were born, what their parents were like) and then browse baby name lists for the relevant country and year until I find the one that fits!” ~ Cassandra Jane Parkin

“Church Records. People watching/listening. Tbh, their names sometimes change as their character progresses.” ~ Rachel Butterworth

“Quite honestly, graveyards and memorials. Oh, and people I’ve killed.” ~ Chris Nickson

“Baby name book – mine is falling to pieces. For surnames, the phonebook, twitter, news, sport etc…” ~ Colette Caddle

“I jot down first names or surnames that catch my eye as the credits roll at the end of films.” ~ Angela Barton

“I have all the title deeds for out flat going back to 1881. They’re all in there!” ~ Mark Legatt

“Period and class. Maps for surnames. Names which have myths and e.g. Bible stories associated with them, because – I love a nice, quiet clue for the canny reader. Also, often, what the short form would be, especially if it doesn’t look very much like the full name. (Polly for Margaret, Ted for Edward, etc… ) so that the charcter can use a different version at home and at school, etc. etc.” ~ Emma Darwin

“Baby books/surname books and the name generator in Scrivener. I especially like that one as you can limit names by gender/country/surnames and so on. If I remember right, it also gives the meanings which helps with creating personalities too.” ~ Gary Parkin

I must admit that I’m now using Scrivener for my Italian names and enjoying having the pressure taken off me. I’ve even got the perfect name for my Russian strong man. Will I use it for English names? Hmmm, I’m not sure. I think, after reading all the advice above, I might find more meaningful names for Mike and Hannah.

How do you find inspiration for your character names? I’d love to know.

The social media thingamybobs:

8 Comments

  1. Margot Kinberg
    May 23, 2016

    Now, that’s an interesting question, Nettie! Character names really do matter, don’t they? I honestly couldn’t tell you how I get inspired for my characters’ names, because it’s different for each one of them. For me, it’s usually the rhythm of a name that gets my attention and makes me want to use it.

  2. Lisa Shambrook
    May 23, 2016

    I’ve chosen names before that didn’t fit – they were just place holders – then used find and replace to change them, which was fine until Dan was changed to Matt and all the words inlcuding ‘dan’ in them changed eg: danced became mattced… Hmm. And now that manuscript is getting an overhaul and – new names, again! lol

    Your post has given me new places to find names too!

    • nettie
      May 23, 2016

      Oops! I’ve done a similar thing myself in the past! Thanks for commenting, Lisa x

  3. Graham Edge
    May 23, 2016

    I’ve used random name generators on the ‘net, especially those that are based of census data from specific countries. However it’s rare that the first name it comes up with is used; fine tuning, checking meanings, searching for the right cadence even.

    Even then sometimes the name is left on a back burner, a story-in-progress has the antagonist currently known as (Dark) Lord Fred… Like Lisa Shambrook (oooh, that’s a nifty surname!) then use find/replace. And having made the same mistake, remembering to turn on the Match Case and Whole Words Only options!

    • nettie
      May 23, 2016

      I love the sound of Dark Lord Fred! Thanks so much for commenting x

  4. Jane Risdon
    May 24, 2016

    I am so glad I am not alone in sitting gazing into space having an internal struggle to think of a name, any name, for a character. It is SO important to get it right. I even use names I hate, but if they suit… I force myself to try and fall in love with them which is difficult if the bearer of the real name isn’t your favourite person. After going through the names of those you know, are famous and infamous, it is tempting to begin making them up, as is the fashion these days, I notice. Even members of my own family have resorted to making names up….dear me! Unfortunately I get visions of the person each time I go to write the character and so eventually I’ve decided that I save such names for those characters who fits the closest to those in real life. So glad I am Jane.

    • nettie
      May 24, 2016

      I was names after a character in a 60s TV show my mum liked. It was either Annett or Yvonne. I prefer Annette. Thanks for commenting, Jane x

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