What's In a name?

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.

Annabel                                                                                   Radanovic
Chuck                                                                                      Smith
Pete                                                                                         Morley
Sally                                                                                        Williams
Henry                                                                                      Ford
Lettie                                                                                       O’ Sullivan
Klaus                                                                                       Handcock       
Ellen                                                                                        Appleby
Isabella                                                                                    Eddison          
Stan                                                                                         Gonzalez

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...


Fiona Glass said...

What a fascinating post - thank you! I'm rather partial to Lettie Handcock, I must admit...

Sandra Davies said...

Isabella Edison
Scottish, privately educated, only daughter. Neat, tidy fair hair, family owns horses. Works as a journalist for country style monthly magazine but self-deludingly likes to think she is ‘one of the boys’ when alongside crime reporters. (Has recently broken up with one, initially seen as a ‘bit of rough’, having tried to civilise him.) Will marry solicitor Hamish and have three children before discovering his infidelity, whereupon she steps completely out of mould and shacks up with, to begin with, a garage mechanic who has escaped his wife and five children.
[Great idea - padded out a bit part player in a current novel, thank you]

Rin Simpson said...

Great post. I love choosing my characters' names, always have done - in fact, I bought my first baby name book when I was about 8!!

Here are my thoughts about Pete Radanovic: He’s a first generation American, the son of immigrant Yugoslavian nationals. Vaguely ashamed of his poor, provincial roots, he’s desperate to be a true blue Americam, which is why he never goes by his full name, Petar. He’s single, 40, works in construction and spends most of his time at his local sports bar where he drinks bottles of Bud and makes half-hearted attempts to chat up women with corny one liners he’s learned from Cheers.

Fionnuala said...

Rin, I quite fancy Petar actually! Sandra, I love Isabella's inate rebelliousness and Fiona, Lettie Handcock - the mind boggles! I'd say she's put up with some comments from the opposite sex growing up?!
Thanks for taking part everyone.

Debs Riccio said...

Klaus Gonzalez works at the children's hospice down the road. He's a sweet, kind, charming man but you wouldn't want to meet him unexpectedly in the dark. He has a scar from ear to clavicle which he says he got after a fall from a tree. He has no family and his secrets are as deeply buried as his parents in the local cemetery. Only one person knows the truth about Klaus and she's saying nothing. She's mute. She's Lettie Edison and she's twelve. How does she know so much about this mysterious man and can anybody else understand the language they speak in?
Okay, that reads more like a blurb, but I'm trying :)

Fionnuala said...

Dear God. Debs, that's a novel! Write it! Now! X

Debs Riccio said...

... and if I do (*snort*) I'll dedicate it to you, you little Muse!

DT said...

Sally Williams, 41, married for 14 years. Two children, a rugby-obsessed husband (arguably then: three children), and her own successful business as a florist. She's not unhappy, just a little too settled. She always knew, after her parents' divorce when she was six years old that she wanted to have a shop - a place of sanctuary and security, and somewhere she could brighten other people's day. And for a while it seemed enough.

When the parade of shops, on the other side of the street, was refurbished, Sally looked forward to more passing trade and an upswing in business. Something to bolster that secret bank account - her emergency fund - that she'd kept since her college days. It took a couple of months before she noticed that one particular customer, the art dealer over the road, always seemed to be passing, or popping in every week to buy flowers for his gallery. Who buys flowers for an art gallery?

Fionnuala said...

LOVE IT DEREK! I'd buy this one... Write it - dare ya...

DT said...

Hi, Fi. It's Anne Tyler territory, methinks, and outside my skill set. But you're welcome to have first dibs on it. Twas all I could do not to turn the art dealer into a spy or a murderer!