Monday, 18 June 2012

What’s in a Name?

Quite often when I’m writing I struggle to give my characters the right names. This is because a name conveys so much about the character I’m trying to portray.
A well chosen name can give the reader so much information before the writer even begins to flesh out the character. Take these three names for instance: Mavis, Chelsie and Quentin. 

To my own mind the names conjure up the following details about the characters.
Mavis – A homely woman in her 50’s or older. Possibly a church goer and married to someone called Bernard or Ernest.
Chelsie – A young girl or child. Will probably sport a tight ponytail and wear cheap tracksuits.
Quentin – An upper class gent who is forty plus and is most likely out of touch with the real world. 

The opinions are of course exaggerated but the do show the power of a name. Take Chelsie for example. If it was spelled Chelsea then it conjures up a totally different character. 

Some better writers than me have chosen their character names very well. Zoe Sharp’s heroine Charlotte Fox goes by the name Charlie which alters her persona by making her seem more macho with the regendering which takes place by the shortening of her name.
Michael Connolly’s main protagonist is called Hieronymus Bosch after the painter but his Christian name is shortened to Harry. This gives Connolly the opportunity to introduce Bosch’s back story whenever he wants.
Some character names such as Matt Hilton’s Joe Hunter or Tom Woods’ Victor do little more than offer a “does what it says on the tin” message about the character.

The reasoning above is why deciding on a character’s name is one of the most important parts of writing for me. I feel that if I get that right then I’m halfway to being able to depict what I need to about my characters.

If any of my readers can leave me a comment on how they choose a character name then I’d be grateful for any tips or advice.


  1. I generally use a random name generator until I hit upon something that sounds halfway decent. I then use that and don't think about it again.

  2. Thanks for the tip Sam. I have used Google many a time to research popular names for whichever country my characters originate from.

  3. Most of my stories are written with just the character in mind and nothing more. Their names seem to come later, after I've finished the story and their actions help with naming them. Maybe a strange way to do things but it's just the way it works for me.

    On shorter stuff, though, I just pluck a name from the past or someone I know locally.

    Good post, Graham.

  4. Cheers Dave

    It would look like this is another aspect of writing where every writer has their own methods and practices which work only for them.

    As I HATE editing I try and get the name right at the start so that there is less editing to do. Also I like a character to be fully fleshed out in my mind so that I know exactly what I'm trying to acheive.

    Dif'rent strokes for dif'rent folks.

  5. The question is - after a writer has named his character and thought things through, how many times has that characters name changed due to another idea jumping into the writers head?

    "Robert wouldn't do that but, say, Ricky would."

    It'd be interesting to find out how many memorable characters started off life with a different name.

    (BTW, the new "word verification" does my head in.) ;-)

  6. I'm lucky that way because by the time I name a character, I know enough about them to choose the right name. If they do something out of the ordinary then perhaps I will change the name but I have rarely had to do that.

    My biggest mistake to date was three main characters whose initials were all AB.

  7. 80% of the time the name comes to me, fully enough formed to almost dictate their story too, but I have heard of people using road atlas indexes or maps to pinpoint a surname; sometimes I grab a random CD from the shelf above my monitor and look for a name in a title. But it does have to sound right, and not remind me of anyone especially disliked.

  8. Good idea with the maps Sandra. I used that trick to make up a plce name once, the principle is the same.

    I must confess to having almost given a certain moniker to a character I planned to kill off as a petty piece of personal revenge.

  9. Chelsie makes me think of Chelsea Clinton. I try to stay away from names of famous people unless their image is what I want for the character. Quentin, I believe, is Latin for fifth child, so it could suggest to some that he comes from a larger family and has siblings--this may or may not mean anything.
    I used Allison Trowbridge for a young lady with wealthy parents. Reginald Franklin III for a stuffy, fop of an attorney.
    So, yes, I agree with names absolutely. Alistar Webster for a power broker with a European "feel." It is fun and I agree with what you said in your blog. David Bishop, author

  10. For me, I love the backstory of my characters and I always try to choose a name that communicates the backstory possibilities. I also strive to make sure the name is one that is palatable to readers.

    For example, the main character in the novel I'm working on now is named Declan McIver. The first name (in my mind anyways, let me know if I'm offbase) is obviously Irish but its a name that most people recognize and can pronounce. The last name is British and communicates that the character (or his ancestors anyways) has a history in mainland Britain and is an immigrant to Ireland, which brings to mind the Troubles between Britain and Ireland.

  11. David, I like your train of thought carrying it on to the surnames. But to my own twisted mind Chelsea and Chelsie are totally different people.

    Ian, I agree with intimations of backstory and the regionality of certain names. Scottish and Irish names are so evocative that you can almost describe the character and their personality from their names alone.

  12. I think you are being very offensive about the name Chelsie (which is my name by the way) and I can assure you that I am not a tight pony tail track suit wearing person! My name was spelt this way to differentiate it from Chelsea football club!

    1. I apologise for any offence caused Chelsie. I was merely trying to convey a stereotype which is something of a writer's tool. Playing on people's preconceptions evokes images and background which is unique to every reader.
      Many big name authors such as Lee Child, Mark Billingham do not physically describe their lead characters, preferring to let the reader's imagination personalise the character instead.
      I have a colleague called Chelsea and know others who also share your name with various spellings. Again I apologise if I have offended you.