Saturday, 10 January 2015

What's in a name?

I've had the subject of names on my mind recently since embarking on the third Esme mystery and gathering together the characters who'll appear in the novel.

Some writers change characters' names several times along the way while they 'get to know them'. I've read of one author who doesn't choose names at the outset at all but uses a series of Xs or Ys in his manuscript instead. But I have to have a name for my character before I can even begin. So choosing the right name is important.

Names can say much about a character even before they leap into action on the page. Consider the different preconceptions generated by the names Bartholomew and Wayne, or Gladys and Zoe, for example.

Nancy Kress, in her book 'Dynamic Characters', suggests that characters' names reflect their parents' choices. She points out that parents who decide on the names Susan Mary have a very different world view compared to those who choose to call their daughter something more flamboyant like Anastasia or quirky like (Nancy's suggestion) Rainbow Sweetgrass. And what about the reaction of those characters to their name? Do they hate having a plain name and long for an exotic one? Do they love being 'different' or yearn to be 'ordinary'? The answers could help with character development or even give the writer an idea in which direction the story could go.

Some names offer a clue as to the era in which a character was born, something aptly demonstrated recently while I was helping transcribe school admission records for Shropshire Family History Society. The first batch spanned the 1940s so names such as Dorothy, Joan, Hilda, Raymond and Dennis featured. This week it was Lily, Elsie and Henry, in a list dating from 1906.

But some names endure across the ages and are more difficult to pigeon-hole. A survey of 13th century Essex parish records put William as the most popular boy's name and in other areas surveyed it remained in the top ten for at least the next three centuries. By the 1950s it had become less well used until rediscovering popularity in a 2001 list. For girls, Ann or Annie spanned the centuries as one of the most consistent popular girl's names, from the 1700s right through to the 20th century.

Other names have dropped completely out of usage. The name Rohesia, which I used for a key character in my recent novel, The Indelible Stain, was number nine in the 'most popular' of girl's names around 1250. It's a Latinised form of the name Rose but it's not a name you hear these days (unless you know different, of course!).

The advice when choosing characters' names for your story or novel is never to have two starting with the same letter, so as to avoid confusion. When I wrote Blood-Tied I named Esme's sister Elizabeth without thinking (I seem to have a fixation for names beginning with E for some reason). Before I realised, I'd used the name to demonstrate the particularity of Elizabeth's character - that she never shortened her name to Liz or Lizzie, but always insisted on being known by her full name, Elizabeth. But in the event, rather than having to change it, the error proved serendipitous as it provided me with a very important plot point which I would never have thought of otherwise (and if you don't know what I meant, you'll have to read the book to find out!).

So, on that note, if you'll excuse me - I'd better get back to consulting my Oxford Concise Dictionary of First Names.

If you're a writer, how do you choose your characters' names? Do you, like me, need to know what they are at the outset or do they come to you later in the draft?
And what about surnames? Do you stick a pin in the phone book? Do you scan the cast lists in the Radio Times?
Do you have any good tips for choosing names? Please do share them in the comments box below.


  1. Names are very important to me, right from the outset. I think they are the start of building the character. I note your point about not having characters with the same starting initials and I admit I have done this which in hindsight I should perhaps of avoided. My main problem was with surnames. Because of my storyline most of the time my characters are called by their surnames and I discarded many suggestions because they were too much of a mouthful.

    I now listen out for names and note down those I like, or loathe, for future characters though I have to say my names are also chosen or discarded if they've belonged to someone I've known in real life. Particularly if that person had a characteristic I did not want to be reminded of every time I came to write about them!

    Great post Wendy, thanks for sharing :-)

    1. Thanks for your comment, Georgia! Good tip to note down names you come across for future use. I'll remember that.
      Trying to think of names which aren't the same as people you know can be a problem, I find - especially if you had it mind to make the name a nasty piece of work. It could ruin a very good friendship!
      I hadn't thought about the problem of being unwittingly reminded of someone you'd rather forget, though, I have to admit. Though isn't it then the mystery writer's prerogative to kill them off? ;-)

  2. I enjoyed reading your post, Wendy. I find that often a character turns up in my head complete with name, but there are times when I agonise over what to call someone. I am in the middle of editing a book in which the main character is called Carrie (Caroline), though she went through several other names first.

    I am always interested to see which names were popular at different times and, like you, I have my trusty Oxford Concise Dictionary of First Names.

    An interesting and informative post, Wendy. Thank you. I'll drop by again.

    1. Thanks, Susanna. Glad you called in. Sometimes a name can unlock the fully formed character, I find. He or she is 'there' but it's as if they're behind a veil until I find the right name and let them out!

  3. Well yes it is but you don't really want to name someone...who might recognise themselves...and then kill them off...all very awkward ;-) This is the problem of living in a community who now know what you do in your spare time...:-)

    1. A good point, Georgia!
      One thing you can't guard against, though, is getting to know someone with the name of your antagonist in between writing and publishing, which has happened to me.
      Ah well, all part of being a writer, I guess!

  4. I have to have the name right before I can really get into a character too, Wendy, and often if something isn't working in a WIP it helps to change the name and see if that helps! Some names just 'feel' right, don't they? I have a bad habit of just making them up - there is a character called Dresida in one of my (unfinished) novels, but I don't think this is actually a name!

  5. Making up a name sounds like great fun, Jo! I suppose it depends on the character. And if you can't find just what you're looking for, why not give it a go? I do agree, though, that a change of name when you've hit a wall can work a treat. Thanks for dropping in. :-)

  6. I usually know my main characters' names right at the beginning - it's an important part of who they are and will (I hope) tell the reader something about their age, culture, background etc.
    One exception has been the children's book I'm working on now. It's a fantasy adventure so I wanted unusual, made-up names for the two main characters. I tried out different names but kept changing my mind because none of them sounded exactly 'right'. In the meantime, I started writing the story and realised that these characters used nicknames when talking to each other - nicknames that suited them both perfectly and explained their relationship - so now those are the only names I'm using.
    I've also found this website useful It's an American site but it has lists of historical names and names from different countries. I discovered it when I needed to name a Japanese character.

    1. Great tip, Linda. Thanks for the link!
      A character in an early draft of a The Indelible Stain used a nickname, which was very handy as discovering his real name became key to unlocking the mystery. Then I changed the storyline so he didn't actually appear in the final version!

  7. A great post, Wendy. I hope that my choice of characters' names will imply their age, social background or nationality and the time in which the story is set to the reader without having to tell them. Well that's the idea.... ;-)

  8. Always a tall order, Jan, but it's great when you hit the spot! Thanks for dropping by.