Author of Time Rep and Note To Self

Naming your characters

Picture the scene: You’ve just sat down at your computer / writing desk / typewriter, ready to start writing your book. So much preparation has led up to this moment – you’ve spent weeks working out the intricate plot details. Developed your character arcs. Thought about your underlying themes and the key messages you want to get across to the reader. So many details are buzzing around in your head that you feel your mind is about to burst if you don’t start writing something, and that moment has finally arrived.

You are ready to start on your book.

Only problem is, you can’t think of a name for your main character.

For some people this isn’t really a problem – they can just start writing with a substitute name like “Mr Poopy Bum Bum Head” until they think of a better one. And that’s fine, but if you’re anything like me, a character’s name needs to be finalised before you can start writing about them, unless of course you’re writing some highly pretentious avant-garde story where none of the main characters actually need names because it turns out at the end in a dramatic and poignant twist that they’re all actually leaves on a tree or something.

My problem is that I’ve got to know a character’s name before I know how they will behave, what their demeanour will be, and how they will react in certain situations. This is especially true if the characters happen to coincidentally share a name with someone I know or have met in real life. For instance, a characer called “Mark” will behave very differently from a character called “Dave”. That’s why I need them to have a name, and why the name needs to be right. It has to feel right. It has to sound right. It has to have the right rhythm when someone says it. Maybe I place too much importance in a name, but for me, the wrong name can really send a character off balance.

Naming the characters in a book is really hard. You think parents have it tough naming their child? Well how about doing that multiple times for every character in your book? Sure, the characters are fictional, whereas the child is a real person who will have to live with that name for the rest of their life, but it’s still bloody hard. So how do people go about it? Well, for me there are only five ways:

1)       Trial and Error

This is where you kind of have an idea of a first name, but then come up with a million surnames that you think fit the first name. The problem with surnames though, is that they can be anything from “Smith” to complete nonsense (like Bruntlefordworth), and if you think about any name hard enough, it begins to lose all meaning in your mind until it resembles more of a shape than a sound. At this point you go slightly mad and revert back to something familiar. This is a good method that works really well for coming up with obtuse names, but do be prepared to lose it a bit before you get there.

2)       The Charles Dickens School of the bleeding obvious

Charles Dickens didn’t like to leave much to the imagination when he named his characters. For instance, Mr Gradgrind (the Headmaster in Hard Times) wasn’t exactly somebody who encouraged his pupils to sit on bean bags all day plaiting each other’s hair. Gradgrind was someone emotionles; a man obsessed with cold, hard facts, you knew this immediately from his name. In a sense, his characterisation was complete once Dickens chose his name. So there you go – if you have a abusive husband in your story, you may want to go down the route of naming him Mr Hitgirl Badman Naughtyhead or something.

3)       Name them after someone famous

Does your central character share a trait with a real life figure? Or perhaps a famous figure in fiction? Then why not name them after that person? George Orwell did a mixture of this in 1984 by calling his protaganist Winston Smith – the “Winston” evoking the strength of Winston Churchill, with the “Smith” implying an everyman facet to his character. Clever huh? At worst, no-one will spot that you’ve done it, and at best people will think you are far better educated that you actually are for making such an intelligent connection between your character and a comparable person in real life. Just don’t make it too obvious by calling your hero “Geoffrey Obama” or soemthing.

4)       Make it up

This is my favourite method of naming characters. Just make it up. Try not to put too much thought into it and eventually you’ll hit something that sounds just right. Don’t force anything – just relax and let the name come to you. A forced name really shows if it has been dwelled on for too long. Let go of your concerns about how the name will be perceived by the reader and you’ll just open yourself up to  knowing when you’ve hit on the right names. And make sure you read them all out loud to work out how they will sound to the reader. Look all around you for random inspiration. Take a look at books of your shelf and merge the first name of one author with the surname of another. You’ll come up with some bonkers names that will make you laugh, but eventually you will get there. My friend Dunstable Huntyford swears by this method.

5)       Call them Dave or James

Everyone knows a Dave or a James, so just do that.

So that’s it – obviously there are many ways to go about deciding on a name for your character, but the methods above have always served me well…

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