Monday 11 January 2016

Characters: What's in a Name?

In which I talk about how I find names for my characters.    

This blog post was prompted by three conversations I've had with my readers over this past month, about how I name my characters. Two pointed out I'd chosen the same name as one of their relatives (sorry, it's purely coincidental!) another queried why I'd named a character after a dog(!)

Like most authors, I have a book of baby names (although the only time I've ever used it was when I was trying to choose a name for my own children) but I try not to pick a name at random, even for the minor characters. The name has to mean something. I have more trouble with surnames - they are sometimes chosen at random. Luke McFadden, the hero from Why Do Fools Fall in Love, owes his surname to one of my husband's books on computer programming. I'm not the only author to do this. Ian Fleming took the name of James Bond from a book on birdwatching!

More recently I've been delving into my family tree and borrowing their surnames. Lydia Cavill, the police inspector in Nemesis, who also features in Trust Me I Lie, was the name of one of my several times great-grandmothers. Vines (spelt Vynes in Nemesis) and Groves (Nemesis) are also family surnames. Halfpenny (Breathless) was the surname of a lady I got chatting to in a Jacuzzi!

First names require a little more work. They have to suit the character who has taken up residence inside my head and, for me at least, they have to have some kind of meaning. Sometimes I do cheat - Shelby (Why Do Fools Fall in Love) was just a name I loved - at the time I didn't realise it was also the name of a car designer (and therefore a car!) As Shelby is not the kind of name that occurs very often in the UK, I felt I did have to give a reason for calling her that. So I decided her mother had been a huge fan of Hollywood movies, and gave Shelby three brothers: Harrison, Cary and Irving. As in Harrison Ford, Cary Grant and Irving Berlin (the man who wrote White Christmas).

To Joseph Halfpenny (Breathless) family comes before everything, so I had him name his daughters after his aunts: Phyllis, Selma and Connie - giving them overly 'old-fashioned' names to emphasise the point. (Sorry, if your name is Phyllis, Selma or Connie!) In Nemesis I had a character who was so eccentric she called her three children Summer, Autumn and Wynter, but in the final rewrite she was edited out - leaving me with three siblings called Summer, Autumn and Wynter, and readers perhaps wondering if I was the one who was eccentric.

And the character I named after a dog? Well, that would have been the bodyguard, Bruno, from Why Do Fools Fall in Love. And the idea behind that was that I kind of imagined him to be a human version of a bulldog.

Of course sometimes this method does land me in trouble. In my novella The Indecent Proposal I needed a name for a famous singer, but every time I created one I liked, I found (via Google) there was already a singer with the same name! My creations became sillier and sillier, and still there were singers out there with exactly the same name! Eventually the poor girl ended up being called Destiny Swan. Why is this a problem? Well, for my next book I've decided to use her as one of the main characters. There is no way I'm spending a whole book calling the girl 'Destiny'. She's going to have to be nicknamed 'Desi' - and lump it!

So, how do you choose your characters' names?

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  1. I have a book of baby names, too!
    Great post.

    1. Thank you, Alison! Me too! Although funnily enough, I never use it! x

  2. Hi Louise, that's an interesting post! I had the name of my main character from the word go, but the other characters were much harder to choose. They had to be Italian names and surnames. This may sound weird, but when I lived in Napoli (where the idea for my novel began), I used to take photos of these posters announcing people's deaths and funerals, and mixed and matched names and surnames. I also used a couple of my great-grandparents' surnames, and "borrowed" a few of my students' names. Lucky they didn't mind! :)

    Take care.

    1. Hi Daniela! Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I completely understand about pinching names from obituaries! I've 'collected' names from old gravestones and movie credits.

      In 'Trust Me I Lie', several of the characters are of Indian descent, so I had to make sure the first name matched the surname - and the right religion!

      Thanks for commenting! x