Naming Characters – Tricky or Not?

During one of the many writerly debates I’ve recently had (Oh, alright then, chats over coffee and a humungous slice of cake!) the subject of naming our characters arose. Not so much the names themselves – i.e. we all agreed that having Tommy, Timmy and Tammy all appearing in one scene, would cause major confusion – more, if anything, what influences those choices.

I rather sheepishly confessed to experiencing niggles of guilt if I christen either a po-faced, cantankerous or toffee-nosed character with the same name as someone I personally know, or one of their nearest and dearest.  I mean, that person might never even read my book. And it’s not like it’s deliberate. If a particular name fits a certain character, it fits, right? Besides, it could work the other way. My neighbour might read my book and think I’ve named that beautiful, kind-hearted, law-abiding heroine after her, when to me; the name simply suits my character’s personality. So why do I worry about it so much?

“Oh, Jan! What are you like?” said writerly friend number one. “I could have an ex-boss called Jack who might be a twonk of the highest order, but if I want my hero to be called Jack, then Jack, he’ll be. End of! Same goes for any name, really…”

Writerly friend number two did, however, admit to feeling so frustrated at times about the naming issue, that she resorts to opening her “10 million trillion names” book or whatever it’s titled, twirling her finger in the air three times and selecting whichever name on the page it lands on. Although she did also confess to applying the ‘best of three’ rule occasionally.

The fourth member of our party simply shook his head, ordered us more cake and told us the only names he avoids using are family ones, and how he’s more concerned about his grandparents reading his saucy sex scenes. Ooh, er! An entirely new debate… 😉

So… where do you stand on the topic? Do you shy away from giving characters certain names, or do you steam straight in?

After all, it is fiction, isn’t it?

Jan x

28 thoughts on “Naming Characters – Tricky or Not?

  1. I’m also careful not to name characters after anybody I know! And I spend ages thinking about their names – ca’t actually write about them until the name is sorted out! Names are important, aren’t they? After all, we ‘live’ with these people for the length of the book – and the subsequent edits! The funny thing is when I meet someone who has the same name as one of my leading characters – I have to do a big mental readjust!

    • I’m so glad I’m not alone, Carol. I really do struggle with this. I once changed a bossy, tactless character’s name EIGHT times because I kept thinking “Ooh, that might offend that person” or “Ooh, that’s my friend’s sister’s name…” Hee hee! Generally, I love naming characters, playing around with what, in my humble opinion, suits a certain personality. Who’d be a writer, eh? 😉 Thanks so much for your comment

      Jan x

  2. I rather sheepishly confessed to experiencing niggles of guilt if I christen either a po-faced, cantankerous or toffee-nosed character with the same name as someone I personally know, or one of their nearest and dearest. … definitely agree, Jan but I *love* choosing character names and I do sometimes name villains or snobs or odious characters after people who have Peed me off in RL or online. It’s the perfect revenge….

    • Ha! Love your way of thinking, Phillipa. So true. I shall log that idea for future reference 😉 It’s good to know I’m not alone with this dilemma. Like you, I love naming certain characters, giving them their proper identity at last. Thanks so much for commenting.

      Jan x

  3. I’m with you, Jan. I go to great lengths to choose names for my characters that aren’t in any way associated with my real life. Not for fear of libel or any such thing, but simply to avoid any kind of influences on or interferences with this fictitious person I am creating. That said, my life now abounds with Sophies. It’s quite scary! Afer I finished writiing my best friend named her baby girl Sophie, both my boys have Sophies in their class, several of the mums I hang out with are called Sophie (several!) and our new babysitter is also called Sophie. Alas, too late: my very own Sophie is all safe and developed in her fictional universe… great post, Jan!

    • Oh, Nicky, it’s so funny you should mention about meeting several Sophies. The very same thing happened to me with one of my characters, albeit not as central a character as Sophie. His name is Liam! Isn’t it weird how things happen like that?! Blimey! This character-naming lark warrants a book of its own! 😉 Thanks so much for your comment.

      Jan x

  4. No you are not on your own! I had that issue with Gunshot Glitter. There is a character called Luke Becklow who used to be called Stephen but about 18 months ago, I changed it as my best friend is called Steve and though the spelling is different, I suddenly felt uncomfortable and worried it might do his head in a bit, even though Luke is actually a lovely character. I knew for sure Steve would be reading my novel.

    I also found names morphed over time, as I got to know my characters better. I LOVE naming characters I really do. But I wish to God I didn’t feel self-conscious about naming characters who share the same monicker as someone I’ve had a clash with, I still cannot bring myself to do it if it’s someone i still care about.

    Though have to say it doesn’t bother me at all if it’s someone I’m metaphorically sticking two fingers up at, because they’ve been an unadulterated arsehole through and through. Never cross someone with a vengeful, pissed off streak and a quill I say!

    • Yasmin, I am grinning away to myself after reading your comment. That last bit is priceless! Honestly, it’s such a relief to know that so many writers feel the same way about naming their characters. Hey! I’m a Libran, which means I already analyze things twenty times over, so you can picture me sitting there crossing off this name and that name, “should I or shouldn’t I” “maybe I will, maybe I won’t” Ha! At least we can all feel self-conscious together. Really appreciate the comment. Thank you 🙂

      Jan x

  5. The name of a character is so important, it creates a picture in the mind of the reader. For instance, Charles. Stuffy or sophisticated, whereas Charlie is a cheeky chappie. As I write about the past, it is important to make sure the name fits the period.I never use a name of a friend or a member of my family as all my characters are from my own imagination and not based on anyone I know. Therefore, pitfall avoided!

    • Hello June, that’s a great example you’ve used there with Charles & Charlie. I was nodding away to myself, conjuring up just the images you’ve stated. You’re right, character names are so important, there’s nothing worse than reading a novel and thinking that the name is either too dated or too modern, etc. That would really grate on me, I think. I’m always careful to avoid using family names, it’s more friends and neighbours with me. You can bet your life now I’ve said all this, I’ll choose what I think is the perfect name for that crotchety, conniving antagonist, and he’ll move in next door! Ah, well… Thanks so much for commenting, June. I so appreciate it.

      Jan x

  6. An interesting point, Jan. I like my heroines and heroes to have names which I wouldn’t come across in real life. [or remind me of any of the little darlings I may have taught in a previous existence!] That way the fantasy world of my novel is maintained. Secondary characters, I just choose names which seem approriate to their age, socio economic group and occupation. Mind you, one of the secondary characters in my debut novel Tall, Dark and Kilted is called ISLA. My friend’s daughter has just had a baby girl and named her ISLA (as I thought after my character, as she’d read some of the first drafts of my novel). Turns out her husband has a goldlen retiriever called Isla when he was a boy and they named the little girl after THAT. Ouch. Balloon pricked. Back to reality. I changed my heroine’s name from Thalia or Fliss because friends said they didn;t know whteher she was T -alia or TH -alia, and they felt it tripped them up. Fliss they liked much more. Now I’ve said goodbuye to those characters I’m playing around with new names. Thanks for this great post, made me think. Lizzie xx

    • Gosh, Lizzie, I can imagine all those school-related names you try to avoid. How many must that be?? Interesting about what happened with your character name Isla; it’s often the way, isn’t it?! The minute we say something or choose something, it appears tenfold. Good point about the name Thalia, too. It’s always awkward if you read a novel and something jars, like that. Can’t go wrong with Fliss! 😉 Glad you enjoyed reading the post. Thanks so much for commenting.

      Jan x

  7. I have always found the characters’ names suit them. I’ve never shied away from naming good or bad guys after people I know but I can’t have a hero with my son’s name or my dad’s or any of my brother-in-laws, it’d just be weird for me. But sometimes I’ll decide on a character name and it just doesn’t work so I have to change it to suit them.

    • Hi Katherine, good for you! Although I do fully understand the son/dad/brother-in-law situation. I so wanted to name one of my characters Freddie but all I could see was my brother-in-law’s face, so I know exactly what you mean. As for changing names, well, let’s just say I’ve been guilty of this on numerous occasions, although, like you say, if it just doesn’t suit that particular character… Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

      Jan x

  8. Hi, great question. I spend ages thinking of names of characters – it’s almost as hard as thinking of a title for a book – because, as everyone’s been saying, names are so suggestive. I think it’s worth the effort to get the names right though. Cheers 🙂
    ps; I have changed names in the middle of writing a novel before but I don’t like doing it, it’s a bit of a hassle and I always worry when I’m changing the name, the search button misses one, if you see what I mean? 😉

    • Hi Marianne, agree totally that finding that book title can prove just as hard. Re changing character names halfway through a novel, I’ve done that myself. When I look back to who was who at the beginning of mine (if that makes sense!) I must have had at least four or five name changes; all secondary characters. I’m now imagining the scenario you’ve suggested above re the search button. Ha! Can you imagine? Jack suddenly becomes Jim in chapter 9 😉 Glad you enjoyed reading the post. Thanks so much for your comment.

      Jan x

  9. I tend to choose names based on personality…but also length and…I must admit, how easy they are to type. If I have to type a name several times, it can’t me too long or broad stroked, if you know what I mean.
    I also tend to lean toward certain letters, and that makes me have to change them again later. My favorites tend to be A, B, J and M. I don’t know why. I recently had to change Alyssa to Melissa, and now realize I have to change it again because I have a Mark and a Mike. Too many M’s, ugh. 🙂

    • Oh, Dana, now talking of choosing the same letters, well there’s another thing I have to hold my hands up to. I had a real thing for the letter M when I first started writing my novel (Must be catching!) First names, surnames, the lot. Even place names. I was ‘M’ crazy! I now have my little alphabet list and cross off letters as I use them. Works for me. Obviously the odd double up is ok, but too many soundalikes and it starts to grate. Thanks for leaving a comment. Much appreciated.

      Jan x

  10. Names have to feel right. Most of the characters in my book, named themselves – they literally arrived one second before their names. A couple of others took ages and were changed several times. Several years ago I met an old gentleman who had written a novel and was keen for someone to read it – well, bless him, every single one of his characters had a name that began with L. I had to give up in the end and pretend I’d read it all. I did say that it got a bit confusing but I don’t know if he ever changed them.

    And on a slightly different note – my son is called Christian, and was the only one in his school. This time next year, there’ll probably be thousands of them, thanks to FSOG. Curse it!

    • Hi Liv, oh, that’s so funny re the stream of L’s in the man’s novel. I’d have been like you, it’s so difficult to know what to say in those situations, isn’t it?! Bless him! As for whether there will be a zillion Christians christened over the next few months, I think you could very well be right. I remember when a certain JK Rowling series of novels came out, lots of children being named after the characters. At least your Christian can claim to be ahead of the game!! Thanks so much for commenting.

      Jan x

  11. Naming character is really hard. The name has to say so much about age, background, gender, social class…it can be a nightmare! I’m still getting over reading about a teenager called ‘Barbara’ in a so-called contemporary. I’d guess the author was older, and when she was a teenager there were loads of Barbaras – she’d just failed to keep up with the times! On the other hand, I get incredibly annoyed reading (admittedly mostly American) books where the hero and heroine have names so trendy that I either can’t tell which is male and which is female, or how they are supposed to be pronounced.
    Mind you, now I’m on book 7, my well of suitable names is starting to run dry…

    • I hear you on the ‘Barbara’ issue, Jane. Nothing wrong with the name, but you’re right, you don’t hear of it much nowadays. Like lots of names, really…You’re right about the name saying so much about a character. Certain names, rightly or wrongly, conjure up certain images. Blimey, Jane, and look at you on book 7. BOOK 7!!!
      I can only imagine how many names you’ve toyed with. That’s such an achievement. We’ll have to get our heads together to top up that ‘well’ 😉 Thanks so much for the comment.

      Jan x

  12. Hi Jan
    Yes, I find this tricky too. My main character in bk 1 went through three names before one stuck and then when I started bk 2 I realised I wanted to use some of the same names again! I have more trouble choosing female names it seems – just as well I gave birth to boys in real life! My mum, Hobs’ mum and my best friend all have the same name – at least that’s only one main one for me to steer clear of 😉
    Elle xx

    • Hi Elle, Do you know, it’s such a weight off my mind to know I’m not alone in this ‘naming characters’ dilemma. I can imagine your predicament with Bk 2, I reckon I’ll be the same. I’ve become so attached to my characters in Bk 1, I can’t imagine, at this particular moment, writing about any others! As for same names, I’m quite lucky in that respect too, with both my husband and my youngest nephew being Davids. Apart from that though, it’s a real mixture. Eeek! Thanks for taking the time to comment. So appreciated! 🙂

      Jan x

      • Such a relief to hear you say you can’t imagine writing about other characters, Jan – I was exactly the same. I had it in mind to just keep going with the same ones, like an adult version of The Famous Five or something.

      • Famous Five! Now you’re talkin’, Liv! We just become so attached, I suppose. Blimey, the length of time it’s taking me to finish my WIP, I feel like my characters have been with me forever. Ha! It’ll be hard not to think of them, that’s for sure. Then again, I’m toying with writing a sequel for mine at some point, depending on how it’s received, of course. (Never like to presume!) We’ll see… The joys of writing, huh?! That’s why we all love it so much 🙂

        Jan x

  13. In my experience people love to think you’ve based a character on them, so if they have the same name they’ll automatically decide that’s why, even when it’s just a coincidence! (the same applies to jobs, nationalities, houses…people love to see themselves in books!)

    I can’t see myself ever naming characters after family or close friends, but I guess that’s because those names have such a specific and clear connection in my head that I couldn’t apply them to anyone else.

    That said, I’ve just looked at my cat Jack and thought: oh no! Does that mean I’ll never use that name for a character? I should have called him Mr Fluffypants and then I’d never have the dilemma!

    • Hi Kate, so true about people sometimes automatically assuming things. I had that situation with my friend’s husband thinking one of my secondary characters was based on him. Not true at all, they just share a similar hobby. Joke is, I didn’t even know my friend’s husband even had this hobby until we were discussing my book round her house one evening and he happened to overhear. Thanks so much for commenting. And I definitely hear you re the Jack/Mr Fluffypants issue! 🙂

      Jan x

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