How do you name your characters?
Often I have to lock my ego in the bathroom when it’s time to name characters. My ego likes clever names. Original names. Names with showy rhymes, alliteration, or heavy-handed symbolism. Names befitting ponderous allegorical characters, Hollywood starlets, or Las Vegas showgirls. In short, names that try too hard. And while sometimes a clever and original name is exactly what brings a character to life, more often what is needed is a real name. A solid name. A name that sinks effortlessly into the landscape of my novel.
Some of my best names pop out of nowhere. A wealthy Nob Hill doctor in Chasing Secrets is named Dr. Roumalade. I have no clue where that name came from. And yet it is a perfect fit for a doctor with a round, balding head who only treats wealthy people with ample means to pay.
The main character in Chasing Secrets was originally called Fanny. I really liked the name Fanny and I didn’t want to give it up. But the longer I worked on the novel, the more I saw it wasn’t a good fit for the character I had created. And once I gave her the name Lizzie, she came to life in a way she never had before.
Sometimes naming makes me feel as if there are fifty dogs in the room. And only one of them is mine. I call the correct name and my dog will come trotting to me. There are days I stand in the room calling name after name, but no dog appears. Once I get the right name, it feels like my beloved German shepherd is rushing forward, bursting with enthusiasm to see me.
Since I write historical fiction, names must be historically correct. In 1900 girls were not named Jagger, Jayde, or Rocket, so the first order of business is to locate names in vogue during the year my character was born. There are a lot of naming sources on the Internet. The 500 most popular names in 1880 is one I used for Chasing Secrets. Sometimes I get names from old newspapers or—though this is ghoulish—from obituaries or walking in cemeteries and writing down the names on tombstones. Then I look at nationality. If my character is very Irish, then I need an Irish name. The name for the character Maggy Doyle in Chasing Secrets came from the memoir of a woman living in San Francisco in 1900. Maggy Doyle was her Irish maid’s name. Maggy Doyle is always Maggy Doyle and rarely just Maggy. Why? Some people’s first and last names are clustered tightly together, as if they are one name. You probably know people like that. I know I do.
Finding last names can be tricky, especially if there is more than one family member with that last name. In my view, J. K. Rowling is a master namer. Consider the name Weasley. The root word for Weasley is “weasel.” Yet that is not the character of the Weasley family. So why does it fit so well?
Another brilliant Rowling name is Draco Malfoy. But that name follows the exact opposite strategy. Draco. Latin for “dragon.” Malfoy. Latin word for evil: malum.
The best names often appear unexpectedly, like a flash flood. The name Aunt Hortense was like that. Her name popped onto the page and there she was.
For the novel I’m working on right now, I wrote down a bunch of historical names in my notebooks. None of them were all that interesting, but I wrote them anyway, just to get a feel for the kind of name that was common in that place and time. When I went back through the pages, my mind suddenly changed around the letters of one name to form another. And with that name as a handle, I was able to conjure up a new and unexpected character who is proving to be quite the scene stealer.
This is one of the absolute delights of the creative process. As crazy as naming can sometimes make me, there is nothing like the feeling of getting a character just right.
Think chocolate. Only better.
Read my original review here.