If a character walks into a book bringing his/her own name with him/her, it’s a good sign. Kazy Clare marched into Hold My Hand And Run carrying her name like a banner. I knew she was going to have a hard time and I wanted to fight her corner for her, but I didn’t get the chance. ‘I can fight my own battles. Hold my jacket,’ said Kazy.
Captains Crispin and Padra in The Mistmantle Chronicles were the same. They knew who they were and what they were there for, they arrived fully formed in three dimensions. However, a character who doesn’t bring a name isn’t necessarily weak or undefined. They just need naming, and naming is important. Ask anyone called Wumfy Iddle-Piddle Pterodactyl McChicken. Or Zaphod Beeblebrox.
There are two approaches to this, depending on where you start from. If you already know your character you might just have to keep trying names out until you find one. That was what happened to Urchin. I couldn’t find his name at all until I looked at things that turn up on the seashore, as Urchin did. You may have to go through a lot of wrong names before you get the right one.
The other is something that happens in the very early stages of a book. Early as in no title, no plot, no characters, but a kind of idea of what you want to write about. This is play, like children playing about with Lego and still not quite knowing what they’re building. Find a name and then find out whose it is. When The Summer Lion was still just an idea about an odd little village, my husband and I had talked about The Honourable Mrs Veronica Thumping-Jolly and other Twidings characters. Bessie Bosomworth the Barmaid never made it into the book.
Sometimes I made up names and threw them at my writing students to see what they made of them. One was Teresa Tiplady. To me (but I didn’t tell them this until afterwards), that sounds like a very delicate name. Teresa Tiplady should be a fine-boned, rather dainty person, light on her feet and fond of fine china. If you wanted to do something mischievous, you could make her the very opposite of this, a big woman with the arms of a docker and a face like a bucket.
Some students felt that she should be Catholic, being Teresa, maybe Irish. Some felt she should be a tipple lady, a little too fond of a drink and inclined to fall over her own feet. John, who was a teacher and always thought of something nobody else came up with, said she was a dinner lady, Teresa the Chip Lady. By the end of the class we all had our own Teresa, all ready to take her place in a book, story or play.
So, if you want a name to play with – Danny Devereaux. Azalea Postlethwaite. Dr Katrina Ferguson-Douglas. Ethel Scrogg.