Monday, 30 March 2015

Positive and negative reasons for choosing character names – Lari Don

Yesterday, I asked my daughter to help me choose a name for a (fictional) white cat in a novel, and as we scribbled down various ideas, I realised that I choose character names for a variety of reasons, both positive and negative.

I’ve always loved selecting names that have resonance or meaning for me, in order to help me get to know new characters, though I usually keep that meaning hidden, rather than shouting it out loud in the story.

So that’s a positive reason to say YES to a potential name. And I have those positive reasons for every major character and quite a few minor ones in all my novels so far.

But there are lots of reasons to say NO to a potential name, many of which I said yesterday as my daughter listed possible names for that white cat.

I can’t use the name of a person I know well. (Or indeed a cat I know well, it turns out.)

I can’t use a name (in the case of this cat) that we’re ever likely to use as a name for a future family pet.

I can’t use a name that I’ve used for a character in one of my other books, even if that book is in a different series (though I’m fairly sure I’ve already slipped up and have a minor character in one novel with the same name as the main character in a picture book. Ooops.)

I can’t use a name, for a minor character, that I like so much I might want to use it for a major character in a future novel…

And of course, the one I imagine most writers struggle with: I can’t use names that look too similar on the page. Recently, I wanted to call a new character Roxanne, but I couldn’t because I already have an established character in that book called Rosalind, and two names starting with ‘Ro’ would be too confusing, for me if not for the readers!  So I'll have to return to the baby names books for that character...

All of which leaves me with a rather worrying question. I’ve got at least a dozen novel ideas that I’m keen to write over the next few years. But will I eventually run out of character names that work for all my positive and negative reasons? Will I run out of labels to stick on my characters before I run out of stories to put them in? (Perhaps I’ll have to start writing the sorts of books where I can invent words…)

Just in case you’re wondering, the cat is probably going to be called Poppet. Not a name I’m likely to use for a cat of my own, or indeed for a serious kickass heroine in another series.

Lari Don is the award-winning author of 22 books for all ages, including a teen thriller, fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales and novellas for reluctant readers.
Lari’s website 
Lari’s own blog 
Lari on Twitter 
Lari on Facebook 
Lari on Tumblr


Emma Barnes said...

It always intrigues me that Jane Austen used her own name for two of her characters - Jane Bennett (Pride and Prejudice) and Jane Fairfax (Emma). That's something I suspect few novelists do. Both were almost annoyingly good, kind, virtuous characters, which makes me wonder if it was some kind of private joke. Would you use your own name, Lari?

Susan Price said...

Good point, Emma! That has always puzzled me too.

I've sometimes given a stop-gap name to a character - 'That'll do for now. I'll change it when I think of something better.'

And then, of course, after you've written a lot more of the book, the character grows into that name and it becomes impossible to change it. I took the name of a villain, Bagthorpe, from a passing van, because I wanted a very unglamourous, ordinary name, and that 'would do for now.' Later, my publishers wanted me to change it, but he had become Bagthorpe. I couldn't think of him as anything else.

Character names matter!

catdownunder said...

My characters tend to name themselves. It irritates me, particularly when they choose something I don't like or don't particularly like. Don't ask me how it happens. It just does - even though I have multiple baby name books to look at!

Nick Green said...

There are plenty of real-life surnames that you couldn't get away with in fiction. I've had colleagues named Blizzard and Hailstones, and my brother was at school with someone called Brilliant, who was brilliant at every subject. In a book you'd dismiss those names as contrived and implausible.

Becca McCallum said...

That's really different to how I name characters. They just kind of...appear. So for ages I'll call them 'The Girl' or 'North Boy' until all of a sudden a name pops into my head and of course they are Sparrow Jones or Oska.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Nick, I know someone called Blizzard, it must be more common than you think, though your colleague would probably think you had him in mind.
I know a writer who called a cat in her fiction after her own cat and had a character based on a friend which, if you know his real name, you can work out the connection.

Richard said...

I find choosing names to be the hardest part of creating a character. I have one story, which will never see the light of day, in which the protagonist is called -- easy to search-and-replace if I ever found out what he was called, but there was never much chance of it happening.

Richard said...

Ah. HTML filtering. The missing name is "name" in angle-brackets.

Lari Don said...

Sorry for my delay in replying - I posted this blog and then took to my bed for a couple of days with a (nameless) bug. But, going by these comments, most writers seem to view the naming of a character as a vital part of creating that character, even if we all go about finding the names in different ways. I particularly like Becca's system! And No, Emma, I don't think I can ever foresee calling a character Lari - one Lari in my head is quite enough!