One 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.
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?