W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

No 17 Naming Your Characters


Although she is 34, my daughter Llara, still hasn't forgiven me for putting the second L in her name. All my explanations that I disliked the commonness of "Donna" although I love D-L or Donna-Lane and wanted to give her an original name have not changed her opinion. No matter that she brushed aside the common name David for our Japanese Chin puppy in favour of Amadeus (now long gone to the great dog biscuit factory in the sky). However I got to name my villain David in my novel CHICKPEA LOVER NOT A COOKBOOK.

As writers we get to name far more people/animals than we get to do in real life. However, the names we select are another tool in developing the character of the person we are writing about.

Names tell us about nationality, age and much more.

Names have trends. Most of Llara's friends had names like Jennifer, Laurie or Lisa. If she were a teenager today she might be surrounded by Brittany(s) and Courtney(s) if she still lived in the States. An eighty-year old American Brittany isn't believable any more than a ten-year old American Mabel.

Old fashioned names can make a comeback. Emma(s) are beginning to be found more and more. I still think of Emma as the bitch my best friend's father used to date not the talented writer actress Emma Thompson or some little girl splashing in a plastic swimming pool on the grassy area of our apartment complex.

While an English writer might be happy to name a character Nigel or Simon, a writer wouldn't choose it for an American man. I have thought of a short story about an American politician named Simon and christened "Simple Simon" by the press because of his honesty. It's not the name that's giving me problems, but the idea of an honest politician in these troublesome times.

Living in Geneva where parents often transfer from country to county every four or five years, they agonise over giving names to their children that will work in many different lands. Some work cross-culturally like Thomas or Alexander for boys or Mary and Anne (Anna) for girls. However, many of you write from your own culture only, but if you ever have a foreigner in your stories, think of what works for your characters from other places. Remember there can be regional and class differences as well.

Gender can be a problem on naming as well. I did learn the hard way that a British Robin is male rather than female as in the States. The mother of the baby boy Robin smiled politely, after she opened my gift of a frilly pink dress. The lesson is if you use a sexually ambiguous name identify the gender immediately for your readers.

A writer with a Welsh character can't go wrong with the names Richard or Owen. Evans or Jones always makes a good last name and if you want to show Welsh patriotism, Bronwyn for a girl. However good a Scotsman by the name of Angus would be, it might not work for a Texan unless the father named his kids for cattle, which certainly shows character. Likewise Irish-ancestry characters can be Fiona, Shamus, Sean (of many spellings) and Liam.

In my classes at Webster University in Geneva, my Russian students all seemed to be named Elena, Oxana, Vassily, and Victor and one Thomas.

German names Ute, Elke, Regina, Günther, and oh yes, Thomas might work, but I am not sure of which age group to assign them too. I would rely heavily on my German friends if I were creating a German character.

Names have connotations personal and otherwise. For me the name Maud always conjures up my lavender-smelling, lace handkerchief carrying great aunt. She was nothing like the 14-year old living down the hall. But the name, added to the smell and handkerchief carrying, makes a character I can put it in a story.

Telling why you named a character can add to the depth of a story. Why did the mother choose Elvis for her son or why do people have numbers? A character named Thomas Witherington IV says a lot a person's status - or a family trying to gather status.

Romance writers seem to give unusual names, especially to their men. Thor, Stark, and my favourite by Sandra Brown, a Cajun named Cash Boudreau - half because Boudreau was my maiden name. Non-romance writers should choose more plebeian names because an unusual names draw attention away from a character.

Names are becoming more and more globalised. For example: Last year the most popular names given to babies in the Francophone part of Switzerland were Emma and Jennifer (I suspect because a Jennifer won the talent contest on Star Academy on TF1) and for boys David and you guessed it - Thomas. However these names might not work if you were writing about Swiss characters. (By the way if anyone wants to write about a Swiss-French woman over 50, try Madeleine.) However if we have foreign characters too American sounding names they just don't ring true.

My Australian mate says that names from Oz would include Bruce, Alan, Darryl, Gregory, Geoffrey, Jeffrey, Robert, Rob, John, Dick, Colin, Ian, Brian, Sue, Philippa, Margaret, Jennifer, Lyn, Marjorie, Cynthia, Christine, Chris, Diane, Cheryl, Sharon.

Where do we find our names? For my mystery set in Argelés, France, I walked through the cemetery there. I can guarantee regional authenticity, besides being able to look at the photos often sealed in the tombstones.

Name books, the telephone book, newspapers, name plates on apartment buildings, and death notices also are sources. Matching the age of a character to a name might work. Little English girls were often named Elizabeth and Margaret after the princesses in the 1950s and Diana became popular from the time of her engagement to Prince Charles.

One mistake new writers often make is to give names to their characters that are too close to each other. A short story with characters named Jean, Joan, Jane, Jack, Jenny, could drive the reader a bit batty.

My daughter should be grateful to her father for making me abandon the hippie name of Cloud in favour of Dr. Zhivago's 1969 name of Lara even with the second "l" as I'm grateful to a cocker spaniel named Bonnie, which would have been my name had my mother not met a dog with that name the night before I was born. That's Bonnie not Bbonnie. I like the name, but it doesn't fit me.

A note on name changes when you decide to change the name of a character after you've written a number of pages, there can be a problem with find and replace on your computer. I changed one character's name from Lou to Gino and found I had a lot of words like BGinoese, Ginoisiana, etc.


Sample 1

This isn't a sample you can read, but if you haven't seen the movie SHAKESPEAR IN LOV E go see it or rent the DVD or video. For those who have seen it, remember how the first title of "Romeo and Juliet" was "Romeo and Ethel" then Romeo and Rosalind" and then finally a character suggest Romeo and Juliet? Think of the line

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

It just doesn't work as well with the names Ethel or Rosalind although Romeo and Rosalind as a title does have a nice alliteration.

Sample 2

I think this is the greatest naming explanation in modern fiction. It is from THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP by John Irving and tells the story of Garp's conception. Garp's mother, Jenny is a nurse and his father is a soon-to-die patient who is limited to one word. At one point she makes love to him and conceives her son, whom she names after the one word that patient could say. (Notice that John Irving breaks the rule not to use many!, but if you're John Irving, you can do that.)

"He cried 'Garp' when he was glad; he asked 'Garp?' when something puzzled him, or when addressing strangers, and he said 'Garp' without the question mark when he recognized you. He usually did what was told, but he couldn't be trusted; and he forgot easily, and if one time he was as obedient as a six-year old, another time he was as mindlessly curios as if he were one and a half…

"She gave up trying to teach him a new word. When she fed him and she saw that he liked, she'd say, 'Good! That's good.'

"'Garp,' he agree.

"And when he spat out food on his bib and made a terrible face, she'd say, 'Bad! That's stuff bad, right?'

"Garp!' he'd gag.

The first sign Jenny had of his deterioration was when he seemed to lose the G. One morning he greeted her with 'Arp'.

"'Garp,' she said firmly to him, 'G-arp.'

"'Arp,' he said. She knew he was losing him.

"Daily he seemed to grow younger. When he slept, he kneaded the air with his wriggling fists…But gunner Garp was not all baby. One night when he nursed at her, Jenny noticed he had an erection that lifted the sheet. ..

"'Ar,' he moaned. He had lost the P.

"Once a Garp, then an Arp, now only an Ar: she knew he was dying.


  1. Write out three series of character traits. Make them very different then come up with a name for the three people. Ask yourself at what point you decide on a name of your characters.
  2. Take the last book you just read and see if you can think of a better name for the main characters.
  3. Think of how you associate names with people. For example: in first grade a little girl name Brenda, who sat behind me in class, painted my new blouse and ruined it. I have a tendency to name my less nice characters Brenda. (apologies to all readers named Brenda) but then ask yourself is it a personal reaction or a general reaction.


A letter from a reader on our last issue about more places to get story ideas:

Just meeting an odd word and wondering what it means can lead to interesting thoughts sometimes, too - in the end you might not even use the word in whatever you are writing, but it might set up a chain of events

Conversations are another favourite source, though I'm still trying to fit in the two old ladies I heard about 20 years ago saying that the country's woes would be cured by us having a "collision government".

Dreams - as worked for Robert Louis Stephenson - can trigger off thoughts, am currently working on a couple of short stories where I have wakened up with

a)a sentence and
b)an idea in my head.

Then don't forget pictures, past and present, famous, family... I'd love to know what other people use as inspiration, too!


Can you write a vibrant, gripping story that will make children want to read?

If you can then StoryPlus would like to hear from you.

StoryPlus is an online children's publishing company that aims to provide high-quality, entertaining stories that will help children develop the most fundamental of all educational skills - literacy - by making reading fun.

If you believe you can write stories that will grip children and carry them through page after page then please send an email to info@storyplus.com for Writers Guidelines and further information. Or check the website www.storyplus.com


Post a Comment

<< Home