When I meet a character for the first time, I can very quickly decide whether I love/hate, dislike or empathise with him or her. For instance, if they’re commiting some heinous murder in the first few pages, then I’m not going to be inclined to like them. However, if they’re committing a monstrosity and their name is Holly Golightly, then I’m at least intrigued.
How do you name your characters? For me, the process is instinctive. Before beginning to write, I think about the character’s characteristics and use the name that comes quickest and feels right. In fact, I’ve rarely changed the name that I’ve first given a character.
Sometimes, names are easy. If I’m writing about an elderly Amish character living in a small Pennsylvanian community surrounded by tumbleweed, something like Elijah Kaufmann feels right. Pete Wong would be wrong, so to speak. (Okay, don’t write in; there’s no reason that a man of Chinese origin may not be living amongst the Amish, but that, in itself, sets the scene for another story)
Naming your character right is vital for the set up of the story. If my character is a young woman, living in the heart of modern Essex, left school at sixteen, works as a hairdresser - naming her Chardonnay or Helena will speak multitudes. Which of them is more likely to have a monthly direct debit to Amnesty International? Helena! Helena! I hear you cry. Possibly, but what about an Amnesty supportive Chardonnay – they exist and probably have a tale and a half to tell. As would Helena – it all depends on the story you want to tell.
So, let’s have a bit of fun with character naming today. Here’s a list of ten Christian names and ten surnames. Pick one from each list and quickly write a few lines on them. Who are they? Where do they come from? What do they look like? What are they wearing? Have they siblings? How old are they? What’s their favourite song? Etc etc.
Lettie O’ Sullivan
Hmmm... I picked Sally Appleby, and here’s my instinctive response:
She’s a middle aged wife and mother of two grown up children, lives in rural Wales, though hates it and dreams of returning to Sussex, where she grew up by the sea. First, she has to figure out how to divorce her husband. She’s at her still life painting class in the village, wearing dungarees that she wore in the seventies and still fit her. She knows she was once beautiful but no longer believes this applies. She’s restless. She needs her roots done.
Or she could be a single librarian, or a music executive, or a jewellery designer working from home, or an ambitious detective. They all fit - just depends on the story you want to tell.
Have a go? And do let us know if it leads to a story or scene...