Familiar Character Names

Writing TipOne of the best parts of writing fiction is naming the characters. For some, this may be the most dreaded part of creating a story. Still, it has to be done. Being prepared with a name makes this game easier. For me, the most annoyed time is when I’m writing a story and I need a name now, and I don’t have time to look for one because the story is coming faster than I can type.

To solve this problem, I keep a file containing names I come across that are interesting and may make good character names. I gather them from various sources: obituaries, news announcements, movies, baby name sites, food boxes, by-lines in newspapers…the list goes on.

If the character was born in another era, say 1920, I’ll search for popular baby names for that time and pick an interesting one.

In the course of all my fiction writing over the many years, I have found one problem with naming characters. Even if I really like a name and feel it fits the character perfectly, I won’t give them that name if someone in my family or amongst my close friends have that name. The exception to this rule is: if they are dead, I will consider using it to honour them.

These names are often easy to avoid because they have become so familiar to me over the decades, they have lost any shine and uniqueness they may have held.

Names

And then there is the other side of the coin. I met someone about five years ago and the instant I heard her name, I wanted to give it to a character. I haven’t yet, and she’s still a friend, so I’m holding out, resisting the temptation. Still, I love her name. It is the perfect fantasy name. With the writing of Revelation Stones, I may not be able to resist.

In this instance, what would you do? Explain your dilemma and ask for permission to use the name, use it and wait to see if they find out, or not use it?

For Christmas, my sister gifted Twistmas – The Season for Love to her friend Jan. Yesterday I heard news that Jan loved the book and couldn’t put it down. That’s great news to hear from any reader, but particularly from a woman named Jan. You see, the main character in the story is named Jan. And Jan thought that was really neat.

But I don’t know Jan—my sister’s friend. I’ve heard of Jan in passing because my sister visits her in Ontario, but I’ve never met Jan. So I wouldn’t have worried about creating a character with her name.

I guess my fear is if I give a character the same name as a brother or sister or close friend, they might think I named it after them, and anything that happens in the story is how I feel or relate to them. This isn’t true, of course, but I can’t control the way others feel.

When I wrote Throw Away Kitten, I deliberately used the names of my son and his friend: Charlie and Cavell. Their mother Selina was named after my grandmother (1886-1979) Eva Selina Typert (nee McDonald). When Cavell read her copy, she was very excited to see her name. Apparently, she’s never read a book with her name in it before.

What do you think about reading a book that contains a character with your name? I don’t know how that feels because I’ve never come across a story with a Diane or Diana as the main character. I recall the friend of Anne of Green Gables was Diana, but I saw it on television and didn’t read those parts.

Which brings me to the next question: Would you give a character your name?

I’m tempted, but then readers will think it is me in the story, when really, it isn’t.

For some people, avoiding family names may be easy. For me, however, there are hundreds of names crossed off the list because of my huge family. Think ten siblings, 26 nieces and nephews (many of who have children of their own), 19 aunts and uncles (plus their spouses) and…well, you get the picture. As a genealogist, I know a lot of family.

I am getting better at this phobia of naming characters. In The Salvation of Mary Lola Barnes, I named Mary’s her husband Richard. The name popped into my head and seemed to fit. One of my good friends while growing up had this name, and when I named the character, I instantly thought of him and wanted to change it. But I resisted. There are many Richards in the world, right? I can use that name and not have it be related to my childhood friend. This character is nothing like him.

The final questions: Do you use names of people you know? And if you do, do you think about how they would feel about? Or do you not give it a second thought?

Editing Quote

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13 thoughts on “Familiar Character Names

  1. It’s a little easier as a fantasy writer as most of the names are made up or quite rare. I know exactly what you mean about the names having to feel right. Most of my character’s names pop into my head and once named they are very hard to change. 🙂

    • I search for rare names for my fantasy novels too. I want to be unique and stand out from the Franks, Elizabeths and Georges out there.

      I’m that way too: after I name a character, it is very difficult to change it.

      Thank you for visiting my blog and leaving a comment.

  2. I have the opposite feeling on using friend’s first names at least for minor characters. I feel it gives them a bit of immortality to put their name in my books as long as the character that gets to use the name isn’t evil or dies. If I had any enemies I’d use their names for villains. 🙂

    Good post though, very thought provoking.
    Karen aka Kacy Jey author of Jolene, You’re Not a Monster

    • That is a good way of looking at it. I’m not sure why I feel it’s taboo to use a family and friend name. I’m going to use them more and see where it takes me. Like you, I wouldn’t name characters who I plan to kill or torture these names.

      I have often seen the quote (or something similar): Don’t piss me off or I’ll put you in my novel and kill you. Still, I’ve never used a name of someone I disliked. Mind you, I’ve thought about them in certain scenes. 🙂

      • LOL In college I killed off my writing professor and turned in the story to her… I got a B+ which was the best grade I’d gotten from her because she said she’d never get a Sci-fi/Fantasy/Horror story a A.
        I hope you have fun with it. My novel that just came out has a few friends in it and so far everyone’s that mentioned their bit has been happy with their part.

  3. I loved this very interesting post. I tend not to give characters family names with one exception, my daughter was complaining that she wasn`t in any of my stories, so my latest character became Tara. I thought I would have to change it but magically, Tara was meant to be this characters name. She is nothing like my daughter but her own person.

    • Our characters find their names in the most mysterious ways sometimes. In years to come, your daughter will always remember your book if only the name of the character.

      I’m glad you liked the post. Thank you for leaving a comment.

  4. The QEII winners would be a good place for names.

    Although I write fantasy, I dislike the tongue-twisting names that are mostly made up or Celtic. I like to be able to pronounce the name. I still try to use unique names. Some of the characters who see a lot of time in my fantasy stories are: Bronwyn, Alaura, Isla, Tam, Jack, Kellyn, Catriona, Liam, Farlan and Maisie.

    Place names are also easy to pronounce: Maskil, Ellswire, Glen Tosh, Petra, Titterton, Shulie River and Moonsface.

    So by the sounds of it, you used your sister’s name without realising it. That was probably an interesting surprise.

    I just remembered, I wrote a short story last year and the main character’s name was Arthur.

    Thanks for commenting, Art.

  5. I am just the opposite and use names of people I know. Of course they look and act quite differently than the real person does. My main character in my middle grade series is Amanda, the name of my second granddaughter. She was 12 when I started writing the first story over ten tears ago. She is tall, thin, with gorgeous long curly red hair and she hasn´t travelled. My character is short, a bit plump and has short straight brown hair. People love to see their name in books. I wish someone would use Darlene. Maybe you will one day. (My oldest granddaughter was a bit miffed I didn´t use her name but I promised I will one day) Names just pop in my head while I´m writing and I usually use the one I thought of at first.

    • Well, you just never know where your name will pop up, Darlene. Mmm, I’m still trying to iron out the names for “The Salvation of Mary Lola Barnes”…Darlene is a possibility.

      Perhaps I should change my view and include more family names; there are so many to pick from: Wayne, Chandra, Melvin, Odessa, Everett.

      I just remembered, I did use the name Liam in my fantasy novel, and I have a nephew with that named. I gave the character this name before Liam was born. I had plenty of time to change it, but I had come attached to the name so kept it.

  6. Picking names takes up more time than it should, I think. Not writing Fantasy, I don’t have to come up with those names that come out sounding like a tongue-twister. Still all those things you say about family and friends apply. Every year when the winners of the QEiII Home Lottery are published, I keep a copy of that in my desk drawer. That gives me an interesting supply of names of all description.
    One of my characters in my first book had the same name as my sister. Hand to god, I didn’t realize this until the book was published and one of my nieces pointed out to me how neat it was to see her mother’s name in the book and the situations she got herself into.
    I still use family names. Most of my family weren’t too adventurous about their choice of names, me included. I like to keep the names easy to spell and not too long. I try to avoid similar names, especially among the main characters. I like to have the names roll of the tongue so the reader doesn’t have to slow down every time the name is used.
    Some names carry connotations with them. Adolph is an easy reach for a villain. I cheat.
    In one book, yet to be published, the main characters were loosely based on real people. It made it easier to write because I could keep the image of that person in mind when talking about that character. When I finished, I did a find and replace to rename everybody with interesting results. I had people using the Scott instead of the John, Marks hanging on the wall instead of art..
    Enjoyed the blog, Diane, hmm there’s a name I could use.

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