Monday, 19 March 2012

What's in a name?

N – Names
What’s in a name? Character, that's what...
Am I the only writer who agonises over names for days on end?  I guess I find it so difficult because I think names are so important in characterisation. They give the reader clues as to what kind of person they should expect. It may seem arbitrary as we are all given names by our parents - when they have no idea what sort of people we will eventually turn out to be.  Then again, many parents agonise over their children’s names too! We give children names and then hope their characters turn out to be what we would want for them. But in the world of fiction we try to choose names that suit the character we are trying to create.
For instance, age and era play a big part in my choices. A woman who was born early 19th century would not be called Rhianna or Stacy. Just doesn’t ring true, does it? But Arabella or Victoria does. The age of characters is also important in deciding names. I can easily imagine an older man called Hector or Jeremiah but not a young boy. I think most readers meeting a character with these names would automatically have in their mind’s eye and older man even before any physical description is given.
Whether your character is the antagonist or protagonist is also important in naming. Although sometimes one might want to increase surprise by giving an evil character an innocuous name… I think it depends on how you are trying to present your story.
Male heroes names tend to be strong masculine names – they are not usually called Fred or Bert - but female heroines may also be strong ‘no nonsense’ names too. I wouldn’t choose a name like Ophelia or Primrose if I wanted my heroine to be seen as strong and capable. But then again, it is all a matter of personal choice… In fact, the more I think about it, the more I like Ophelia!!
When we are introduced to people in real life we may be told their names but it is not the only information we have of them. We can see how they behave, what they look like and hear them speak. We can make judgements about what sort of person they are (although we may turn out to be totally wrong, of course!)
But in writing fiction we have to give a strong first impression by words only to have the reader ‘see’ our character in their mind’s eye. I believe this is why names are so important.
How much importance do you give to naming your characters? Do you agonise or go with the story and change the name later to fit the character?


  1. Character names are essential for a strong story. The names should go with the times or balance the characteristic traits we are writing for the character. Readers catch onto character names and like or don't like them.

    I wouldn't say I agonize over them, but I do take my time in choosing names.

    My cousin hated one of the names in my novel, Net Switch. She said the name just creeps her out, which is great because it's a character that should creep people out. :)

    Have a great day, Pat!

  2. You are so right that getting the names right is extremely important. I sometimes find that until I get the name right, even if I'm using a temporary name, I can't get the character right!

  3. Really interesting post. And you've set me thinking.

    Unlike you, I rarely deliberate for a long time about names. Don't get me wrong, I give them some thought, but once I have a character profile, star sign etc in my minds eye, I'm fairly quick to pluck a name and rarely change it.

    Funny how we all have our different processes.

  4. Oh, heck yes. I research the name's history, country of origin and meaning before I baptize my characters. :)

  5. Excellent post Pat. Names are important to me too. The story seems to flow through better when I get the name right... what they look like, how they behave, feel etc

  6. I often find by the end of a story that the name I thought was so prefect at the beginning doesn't suit a character at all.

  7. Naming characters is hard even when your novel is set in the present in a country that you know well - for me anyway. I am not in love with the names I picked and, like Sarah, by the 5th revision I am not sure I like the names at all. I will revisit them once I am done with this round of edits...

  8. I agonize, too! I spent 11 months drafting the book I'm currently revising, using a name for my MC that I KNEW WASN'T RIGHT. It took me a full year to figure out what her name really was!