The other day I was listening to the radio and the song “A Boy Named Sue” by Johnny Cash came on. It quite funny as it stands, and tells an interesting story. It also made me think about just how much I hate my name. No, really I do. Gail – it’s awful. I know why my parents choose it and I still hate it. But it’s my name, it’s what got me half my nicknames in school –Whale, Fail, references to strong winds (the other half came from having a long nose – Concord, Eagle Beak, Gonzo – kids are just great aren’t they?). Basically my name was part of what shaped how other people reacted/treated me, it helped make me, well me.
They say a rose by any other name would smell as sweet – but would it?
Names – Gail, Sue, Clare (a name I frequently get called for no apparent reason) – are character building. So how do you build your character from the name up?
I suppose the universal answer to that should be ‘carefully’, of course, that answer isn’t overly helpful, so here are half a dozen ways that I’ve employed over the years.
- Fully Formed
Occasionally a character just pops into my head fully formed and introduces him-/herself. Maker did that to me. I knew who he was the very first time I met him. I knew his name was Benjamin, he’ll accept Ben from a very select few, hates Benny, but gets everyone to call him Maker anyway. The only input I added was to give him a middle name so his protagonist partner could have a laugh at his expense – Maker is just a little too rigid at times. Middle name is now Uriah – think about it. And now I feel him scowling over my shoulder as I announce this to the world. Sorry sweetheart but all you foibles will be displayed in black and white anyway.
- The Slow Burn
Sometimes names come along bit by bit. This is what happens most often for me. My favourite example is Charlie, he leads my Locked Series. Charlie started off nameless with me intending him to be a 200-word character study, one that never actually got written. Then I started thinking about him, and thought, this guy could carry a 1200 word short story, oh and his name’s Charlie. Don’t ask why I have no idea, but I knew his name was Charlie. Well, 1200 words turned to 4000, then I realised this character deserved a whole book. It was only when I started writing the book, I realised I needed to give him a surname. I wanted his name to be something short to counteract the length of his protagonist partner’s name. Again, can’t remember now why Bell, but Charlie Bell does have a certain ring to it. Then to make a point in the first full-length novel I wrote about him, I added Lucas, which turned out to be very useful for book three, which I’m currently ruminating on before writing. Charlie’s full name is now Lucas Charles Bell, but it took a while to get there.
- The Hunter
Some names just have to be hunted for. Charlie’s counterpart if Teddington. I knew her name was going to be Teddington quite early. I wanted to use the line “Charlie wants his Teddy bare tonight” and Teddington was the first name I thought of that worked with that. Not actually that much hunting there, I’ll grant you, but finding the right first name for her was an uphill struggle. I ran loads of names through my head – nothing fit. I grabbed a baby name book and did the random flick through thing – nothing fit. I remember getting really frustrated because not having a name for her was blocking the flow of the storyline. But finally, I saw the name Ariadne. It wasn’t the name I was looking for at the time, but it was the one that I found, and then I looked up who Ariadne was in mythology – Ariadne helped Theseus through the labyrinth to defeat the Minotaur. Since that seemed to echo with what I was going to put Charlie and Teddington through, I knew it was the right name.
- A Deeper Meaning
Next way of finding a name is looking for a name to match the character or a trait of the character. I once wrote a book about werewolves – it’ll never see the light of day, but it was fun to write. Every character in that book has a name that links to the word ‘wolf’. There are so many on-line name meaning websites now that actually searching for names that have a particular meaning is often easier than just searching for a name.
This one I find useful when the plot comes knocking before the characters do. When that happens I write out the plot and because like all human beings I am inherently lazy, I’ll start referring to characters by some sort of acronym. If I stick with the Locked series of books, there were characters I didn’t have names for but I wanted to write to plot down so since of those characters was the main policeman, he became MP. Later he became Matthew Piper. There’s another book I wrote what hasn’t been in print and probably never will be, but the plot was stronger than the characters at first so I used this method for all the characters, here are the main three:
|Girl||GND||Gillian Norma Downes|
- Random Prompts
I usually use this one for minor characters (though not always) or ones that suddenly/unexpectedly appear on the page. For these, I look up and hope I find inspiration. That inspiration could be a name on or in a book, on the cover of a DVD, a by-line in the paper, a name on the credits of the TV, the person/actor/character on the TV, a brand name, whatever. Just take inspiration from whatever is around you. The best example I have of this is DCS Broughton (from the Locked Series), I was putting the plot of book two together and I needed a strong sounding Chief Superintendant. As it happened we were driving up to Lincoln at the time, well my husband was driving I was writing in the front passenger seat. While thinking of this new character I looked up and happened to see a sign for Broughton, and so that was how the character was christened and our destination became another character in book two.
- The Quick Change Artist
This is a new one, and then it’s another new one, and maybe another one again. The point is that sometimes you just have to change a character’s name. I have a character that runs through three book. In the first one I didn’t even give him a first name, in the second I did, but I changed the first time because I realised that it was the same name as another character. Then I had an idea for book three and I realised that another name would suit better. My current work in progress has three characters all with names beginning with the letter A. As I’m writing it, I’m keeping the names, but I’m clear that before I send it on to anyone else I will need to change those names, mix it up to avoid confusion. The point of mentioning this last one is really to say, that changing a name is easier in a book than by deed pole, and don’t be afraid to do so.
So that’s a few tools you can use, or not as you will. A name is a name, but then there are nicknames, false names, cover names, pen names. It is and isn’t all in the name. There’s so much more to characterisation, picking a name is just one way to start, or develop, or end. Whatever works.