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Character Names

9 April, 2012

I find that I can never truly understand a character until I have their name right. I have a book of Baby Names that I sometimes flick through for inspiration, but usually the best way is to let them improv a few scenes, get a feel for who they are, and then a name comes to me that seems right. The novel I am working on, for example, features a Stephen but he was only really Stephen until I worked him out. He began as a frame of a character, like a Barbie that is only Barbie until she is dressed in the appropriate clothing accessories and then becomes Vet Barbie or Princess Barbie. Stephen was only Stephen until I followed him around for a few scenes, observed him, and realised who he was. He is in fact Colin, and now I understand that, he can properly live. On paper he remains a Stephen for now, but in my head his name has already changed, and come the second draft, he will adopt the name he was born to be.

Sometimes though, the name comes first, and the character falls neatly into place, almost pre-formed. Most Dorset villages with two-word names lend themselves nicely to this, for example. But life is full of them. I am in the early stages of writing a TV drama and when a parcel lorry pulled up outside our office a few months back, with the company name “Dooly Rumble” on the side, well that’s just too good to ignore.  The basics of Dooly’s character were obvious from the name (ex-cattle rancher). A few emails between my writing partner and I to create Dooly’s full backstory (made his millions through means not always honest, retired early, still has an ear for a good deal), and how he happens to be within our narrative, and we have ourselves a character. But essentially we both knew who he is from the name.  Dooly is a business partner of Dusty Hillside – a name which I happened across while listening to a radio news report about a massacre in Somalia. The reporter mentioned that the events took place on a dusty hillside. Again, too good to ignore. Names are everywhere, lying around unused, and a writer with a keen eye will spot them like a ten pound note on the pavement, quietly pocket them, and then spend the rest of the day imagining what use they can be put to.

However a character comes by their name, that is the key to my understanding them. And once I understand and know them, that’s when my job as a writer properly begins: I can introduce them to the others, observe what they all do and say, be surprised, appalled, offended, bored even. But I let them be themselves, watch, and write it down.

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From → Writing

4 Comments
  1. “Names are everywhere, lying around unused, and a writer with a keen eye will spot them like a ten pound note on the pavement, quietly pocket them, and then spend the rest of the day imagining what use they can be put to.”

    I love that line – and it’s so true. Sometimes when I name my characters, it’s a big struggle to come up with a name (so they usually end up as “the boy” or “the girl”) and other times, I look into the meanings of names to come up with good ones that will fit the plot of my story and how I want the characters to behave.

  2. Hi Maggie! Names can be so hard. But I usually find that when it comes to me, I KNOW it’s right.

  3. I’ve tried writing many times. I’m not a natural fiction writer, but I can write so mostly I get characterisation right and names to match – sometime a name suggests a character. It’s the plot where I fall down. You could say I’m plotless!

    I can’t remember where I read it, but some advice about not using the same names or similar sounding names rings true. And yet I read in something… I think it might have been a Stephen King novel… several very similar names and I just couldn’t keep track of who was speaking or what was happening to whom. Fatal.

    • in Douglas Adams’ “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” there are two Susans. But being Douglas, he did it with such style, and lots of characters saying “not you susan, the other susan.” brilliant.

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