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.
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