What’s in a name?

by limebirdster

So, I just spent an evening going through a 227 page word document, changing 10 characters’ names because too many of them began with an R. And one of those was a main character. I was on the verge of RPS.

But I haven’t liked his name since I came up with it, I just couldn’t think of anything better. So it’s been his name for over three years, even though I hated it. Because there was no point in changing it until I’d found the perfect replacement.

You can tell a lot about a person by their name. A Doris is probably an OAP. If Charlie is girl, they’re probably a tomboy. A Chris has less of a chance of being a bit of a dork than a Christopher. Wafting Poppyseed might be a hippy. And, since 1976, Damien is never going to be well behaved!

Names are important, they suit people and readers will make assumptions on your characters based solely on their names – so you have to pick the right ones! I bought a baby name book a few years ago and sometimes when I’m stuck for a name I just open it up at a random page and flick through until I find the right one. Because there’s always a right one, names suit people, even if only in your own head!

Have you ever had trouble finding a name for a character? Has a name ever changed a character? Or do names just come to you when you’re writing without having to worry about them at all?


25 Comments to “What’s in a name?”

  1. Names are definitely important, but when I’m writing I find that character names generally come to me quite easily – I tend to go with my first intinct and I’m usually happy with it. I used to have a baby name book which listed people’s perceptions of names, rather than the meaning of the name. So they had surveyed a load of people and asked them what type of person they thought a Sarah was or whatever, and then the book listed the most common traits that people associated with each name. Obviously a lot of the time we base our perceptions on people we know of that name, but apparently there are some commonalities. I remember the book said that a lot of people think of Vanessas as being snobby! So that did kind of put me off the book a bit, hehe.

    • That sounds like a really interesting book! I was once told that someone ecpected my to be an OAP because Esther is an old woman’s name!

  2. First of all, wondering why you couldn’t “search and replace” surely that would just take minutes?

    I once had a blind spot: in about five different 100 word flash fictions the main character was called Carter! I had to go back and change four!

    In my upcoming YA novella, ALL the names would give a hint if one knew the origin, be that related to the ‘character’ of the character or (in some minor characters) their job/role. I plan to use it as a competition, the most right answers will get a prize.

  3. I blogged about the methods I’ve used to find character names. It’s one of my favourite parts of writing. I think it goes back to my childhood when I use to play with dolls lol.


    I have so much fun with it 🙂


    • That’s a great post! I do the film one too but I scroll down lists on IMDB rather than watching actual the film, some film crews have the strangest names!

  4. I’ve definitely had the name issue. For my first novel, I had three characters (men and women) who started their lives with “S” names. Who knew that I liked “S” so much?

    The problem with choosing a placeholder name is that you start thinking of the character that way. Then you switch it, and that feels weird, too.

    Hope you’re back to a happy place with the new names.

    • It is strange to change a name that you’ve had for ages. I think that’s why it took me so long to change this one name, because it was so associated with him!

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who has done the letter thing! I didn’t even realise until some else pointed it out!

  5. I think they are so important but they seem to come to me when I picture that person. It’s like they have a name badge on. I have changed names because they were too similar to other characters though.

  6. As I glanced at Vikki’s post, I thought of sources that I’ve used. Obituaries work well, and if I need an ethnic name, I go to http://www.20000-names.com/ (I’m sure there are many similar sites). And where Anne tends to come up with S names, I run to M for some reason. I have no idea why. Maybe I like humming sounds!
    For my Termite Queen characters (the humans) I wanted the heroine to be something like Katherine so she could be called Kate, although I’m a little sorry now, because it seems that right now everybody and her sister on TV and in books is being called Kate or such . Anyway, since my books are laid in the 30th century, I spell the names a little differently. So my linguist became Kaitrin, Kaiti, and Kait. She’s a mix of Mexican, Irish, and (probably) Scandanavian – her father was an anonymous item in a sperm bank. I wanted her to have a Spanish-sounding surname, but not a common one, so I picked Oliva (her mother is Brigit Oliva). And my Welsh protagonist, Griffen Gwidian, was named deliberately for the hero of the Mabinogion (Gwydion), and Griffen just seemed like the perfect given name – I don’t recall ever thinking of him as anything different.
    I’m an ice hockey fan and there’s a broad spectrum of ethnic names among the players. I took the name of the hero from my unfinished novel “The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars” (Nikolishin) from a hockey player of Russian origin. My character’s full name is Robbin Haysus Nikolishin, which displays his mixed origins. He’s a Brit whose ancestors emigrated from Russia during the Dark Age, but he was born Roberto Vargas in Argentina. When his mother left his father, she changed his surname to hers and turned Roberto into Robbin. Haysus is obviously a 30th-c. spelling of the Spanish Jesus. There’s a significance in all that – something you’ll never understand if I never whip the novel into a publishable entity!
    And, Dennis, I use “find and replace” all the time! It’s one of the things that makes computers so useful!

  7. Sometimes the name comes with the character at the very beginning—they just fit together. Other times, I have to think about them. And I make a conscious effort NOT to have names sound alike or to have too many characters’ names begin with the same letter. I keep an Excel spreadsheet separate from my Scrivener files to keep track of them. It’s an easy way to see if too many similarities are cropping up.

  8. One character of mine had the same name for almost eleven years until I realised it didn’t suit him., you’re right; its almost as hard to get that right as it is to write about the character

  9. Names are very important in my books too. I also have a BIG book of baby names that I use when I am stuck for a name. I have had to change a few names in my writings too. Since I write historical fiction, the names have to fit the period too.

  10. I hunt names from the online lists, including surnames. When I name feels right, I pounce. In the novel I work now, rhyming names provides one clue helping the protagonist realise she has a twin.

  11. I am horrrrrrrrrrrible with names! One time I was writing a children’s book and couldn’t think of a name for the kid and finally I just went with David because that is my husband’s first name, it was the only name I could think of!

  12. It’s strange isn’t it?! I thought it was just me, calling lots of characters L names! I don’t feel quite so made now. But it’s odd how even though you know you’ve done it it can be so hard to think of a good name that you want. Maybe make some up, or give characters nicknames, or attach things. For example, I made up a couple of names, or at least I thought I did! Those names were Deke and Mirlo. I also attached ‘old’ to a character called Jim Hoolihan, so everyone thinks of and refers to him as ‘old Jim Hoolihan’. Certainly makes those characters stand out. But I can totally relate to spending half hours researching names on the Internet! I did this for the name of the dog in my new novel, From the Sky, and ended up calling him Sanel because it means ‘heard by God’ apparently. Significant?

    • I totally didn’t notice that I had loads of R names until some else pointed it out to me! It is weird that apparently people have a favourite letter!

      Going from meanings is a good idea, I think I’m too lazy to have tried that before!

  13. I’ve got a main character whose name totally sucks. It is actually the antithesis of her personality. Part of me wants to keep the name, because as it is, it provides a nice contrast to her persona. However, I just don’t like it. I’m going to need help from a beta reader for this one.

    That said, I have a minor character (who is important in that he gets the whole story going, by accident, of course) and actually got positive comments from my writer’s group on his name.

    Then there are a myriad of characters who need names (you know, they’re kings and stuff, so they come up) but are right now named things like King XXX and Queen YYY. I’ll find/replace when I find a good name, but I can spend all day looking for a good name and then not write, so I’m sorta leaving these more minor characters for later. Also, I might have a better feel for them when I’m further along, which will help me choose (I think).

    Nice post.

  14. I constantly change the names of my characters until I’m happy with them. Gets very confusing, LOL!

  15. Oh this is a great post, something I think we all grapple with! When picking a characters name I always decide a little what I want to happen, then I try on a few names depending on who my character is going to be. For older folks I go with simpler names, as our grandparents and their parents kept to traditional names, most often.
    For a teenager, punk rocker well there’s any number of wicked things to come up with, Slasher, Rock, Payne, etc.
    I guess I kind of draw from a pool of names in my mind that go with different character types.

  16. In my case, I have a historical name book–but it focuses on English and French, and now I’m doing medieval Germany, I’m having to search harder.

    I did have to change the name of a main character by editorial request, for historical reasons (ie, there’s a reason England has never had another King John), but the trouble is, every time I think, speak or brainstorm about him, his name is still John. He’s been John since birth, and, to me, he will *always* be John. It was, after all, one of the most common names of the time. I understand why it had to be changed, and I agree from a historical perspective, but it now feels like he’s living incognito under this other name.

    Two books later, I’m now able to write his new name automatically, but I’m still thinking “John”.

  17. Find and replace is a great tool. I learned you exact a phrase as well.

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