Monday, 17 December 2012

What's In a Name?

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. You probably don't want to hear how I choose names. I spend a few minutes brainstorming simple science fiction sounding names and then assign them to the characters. The main character gets more thought, but for the rest, that's how I roll.

  2. I think names are vitally important. Sometimes I can't write until a name feels right, but sometimes I can give a temporary name and just change it later. Ah the joys of find and replace (I think Ophelia is a lovely name) :-) x

  3. I take ages to pick the right name and sometimes I'll change the name three times before I'm happy.

  4. I don't agonize over names. They just come to me when I wave my magic wand.


  5. I often change names... I tend to pluck names out of the air and think about it later.

  6. Interesting!

    I wouldn't say I agonise, but I do take my time and try to choose appropriately.