The perils of a name


How much are you influenced by someone’s name? I’ve been thinking about it for my latest book, and was reminded again during the election when I found that a candidate for a party I would NEVER support is also called Sue Ransom. For a long time I’ve shared a name with an Australian drag racer, and that was fine, but this other one I’m not so comfortable with. I do hope that all the people I know on Twitter and Facebook realise that it isn’t me.

So it’s obvious that sharing a name doesn’t make you the same, but can changing a name make you view someone differently?

I always struggle with names for the characters in my books. It usually takes a few goes, and couple of ‘global replace’ edits before I’m happy with my choices. Along the way I’m also often scuppered by my primary beta reader – my daughter – who has some very firm opinions on names.  In my current WIP I liked the name Ali for the male lead (for Alastair), but she was having none of it. She didn’t like the name Fran for the other main character either (particularly after I told her it was one of my choices for HER name when she was born!). So we wrote long lists and came up with other names – and right now those are Jess for the girl, and Ludo for the boy. She still isn’t wildly happy, but now she’s read the first daft I think she’s beginning to feel the characters inhabiting those names. It’s a bit like new friends – if you have a new person joining your class who has an unusual name, for a while it will sound odd. But soon the name isn’t actually relevant – it’s just the identifier for that person, and you’re no longer surprised by it.

And that then becomes the problem – almost every name reminds me of someone, and that’s not what you want when you’re writing – you want your characters to be new and fresh, not full of the echoes of someone else, however deeply buried the your brain. I think that must be why so many writers use made-up or old fashioned names – think Katniss or Hermione. I bet there were no girls with those names in Suzanne or Jo’s 5th form English classes.

Replacing character names when you’ve done a first draft can be a tricky business.  The name ‘Ali’ doesn’t just turn up on its own – those three letters turn up other words,  I found as it became apparent quite how often I used the word ‘realised’. I had to do a load more searches for words like ‘reludosed’. We had a similar problem with replacing the name Fran. Ever heard anything described as Jesstic?

Finally it was done. But does a Ludo behave in quite the same way as an Ali? I’m not sure. I think of Ali as being laid back and open.  Ludo is more buttoned-up and has an interesting disregard for authority. That means more edits to adjust the things they have done and said to better fit the name. Jess seems to be behaving herself – I think Fran and Jess behave in a reasonably similar way, so not so many edits are required for her.

The best names to have to find are the ones for your horrible characters – the mean girls, the boys who dump your main character, the ones who are just plain evil – they are easy. Anyone who has ever (and I mean EVER) upset or annoyed you is fair game here. It’s delicious revenge, making them so unutterably horrible that no-one will ever like them, or killing them off in new and painful ways. And it’s all perfectly legal.

So I’m hoping that I’m going to be able to stay with Ludo and Jess for this next book.  And the nasty character name? That would be telling!

4 thoughts on “The perils of a name

  1. My characters name themselves – or it feels like that. They seem to tell me what’s right for them.

  2. I was thinking about this the other day. I’m working up to starting my second novel and I don’t feel I can start in earnest until I’ve decided on the characters’ names. I think someone’s name can have a big influence on how we view them – that’s why, like you, I sometimes struggle to settle on character names. They’re important! 🙂

  3. I once did something very foolish when naming a character in a novel. I had chosen very carefully for the names of my main characters and their closest family, and things were running along smoothly. But suddenly the story called for a love triangle, and I had to have a second guy — but for just a few chapters — I thought. I was really into the story, and I just grabbed a name that sounded good at the time — had a nice ring to it — but I didn’t really THINK about it because he was just serving a short-lived purpose.

    However, he seemed to hang on throughout the story, and by the time I’d finished that book, I knew I had to do a second and possibly a third. The few people who read the early drafts insisted that I had to make this a series, and I could feel the stories in me. Unfortunately, when I sat down to write out what was coming to me as the second book, the main character was this guy who was supposed to have been just a fill-in. The stories kept coming, but this guy just kept taking on a main role. Of course, after he was the main character in book # 2, he had his foot solidly in the door for the whole series. Each new story brought in some new characters, of course, and moved several of the originals along in their lives as well, but that one character (with the ill-gotten name) was the only one from the original story who had a primary part to play in every one of the other four books.

    I told a friend — and I truly meant it — that if I had realized this man would play such an important role in the whole series, I would have given him a name that I enjoyed working with better. But I was stuck with his name — and the same last name for all of his relatives. That fact caused me some trying moments for sure. Bummer. So my advice on names is never tell yourself that any one character is too “little” or “unimportant” to merit serious consideration where his name is concerned. Until you’ve actually written the words “The End,” you really don’t know for sure just how important he’ll be.

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