On Naming

by Brenda W. Clough

mermaid You write a novel. Naturally it has characters. And those characters need names! Let us set aside for some other day the issue of creating fantasy names, and consider today only naming characters with cognomens that already exist.

Depending upon how you roll, this usually comes very early in the writing process. For me it comes before beginning the writing at all; if I don’t know the character’s name I cannot write. I can get away without looking at my hero for many thousands of words. I was more than halfway through the first draft of How Like A God before I thought to actually cast the authorial gaze upon my hero; I knew what all the other characters looked like because I was using his viewpoint, but he had never done the old look-in-a-mirror stunt. (When I did look I was astonished, and marked the place in the text.)

But there are a number of factors to consider. The most important of course is time and place. A work that takes place on Mars in AD 2502 is going to have a differently-named cast than a work that is set in 1741 in Wales. Given names especially come and go in fashion in an easily-charted way. You can search on it and kick up sites that will graph for you the popularity of, say, John as a name for boys over the centuries. Certain names are highly redolent of their time. Consider my own. Every Brenda you are ever likely to meet is between 50 and 70, because that was when that given name was in fashion. Nearly all Lindas are the same, whereas a Madison was surely born the year after Splash and is around 30 years old today. You therefore are foolish indeed to name your Elizabethan heroine Brenda or Madison, and if the novel is set in ancient Rome, all I can say is for god’s sake don’t! Rome, like many other non-Western cultures, had its own naming conventions which you should research carefully.

Surnames, if your characters need them, are also a challenge. An old writer trick if you need foreign names is to look up categories of people — sports figures, say, or members of the state legislature, or plumbers. You need a Czech villain? Find the list of the members of the Czechoslovak Olympic soccer team from the 1950s. Plenty of nicely authentic surnames and given names will pop up, and a little slicing and dicing will get you a correctly-named supervillain. The great Georgette Heyer derived all her realistically-English titles for the earls and dukes of her fiction by plundering maps — all the names are obscure villages in the English countryside.

Beyond that, the vagaries of naming a character are mysterious — an art rather than a science. My heroine is staying with an elderly Frenchwoman. When the character was named Solange she was tall. Now she is renamed Cresside, and she is shorter. If I rename her again to Yvette she will be shorter yet. How do I know this? Why is it so? I have no idea. At some point the Muse takes charge of the process, and I have to let her do that. A rose by any other name does not smell quite as sweet.

All names, and in fact all terms and invented places, should be shoved through Google. If someone with your hero’s name was just executed in Beijing for sex crimes, you want to know this. You say nobody will likely notice? It is possible you will sell those Chinese-language rights, you know.

Oh, and one more very important tip: when you change her name from Cresside to Yvette, go through the ms with care. Do a Global Search and Replace, but then reread it. There are sad stories about writers who changed the hero from Richard to Wallace on page 200 but didn’t do a Search and Replace. The readers were confused!

The ebook version of my novel How Like a God is now available from Book View Cafe.

How Like a God, by Brenda W. CloughMy newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out from Book View Café.

I also have stories in Book View Café’s two steampunk anthologies, The Shadow Conspiracy and The Shadow Conspiracy II, as well as in BVC’s many other anthologies, including our latest, Beyond Grimm.




On Naming — 11 Comments

  1. I forget the source, but my favourite search-and-replace story is the author who changed Jack to Edward, and who ended up with a plane that was high-edwarded.


    (Many of my minor characters are _ _ until I find the right name for them.)

  2. An interesting topic, Brenda. Like yours, my characters usually walk into their first scene and tell me their names. This has a downside, though, because if I need to change somebody’s name, I can never remember the new one!

  3. Search-and-replace is one things. It’s the autofinger response of typing “Martin” when you put in the heroine’s brother even though you changed his name to “Robin” with great relief (because you finally figured out another name that would work for him — any other, given that his sister was Margot).

    • Whoops.

      To finish the thought: It’s that response that will really get you, because it’s after the search-and-replace.

      • Well ideally you will do one more search for the old name, before the ms is deemed complete. And also in this paradise you will be followed by intelligent and perceptive beta readers, proofers and copy editors, one of whom will pipe up, “And who is Bert, here on page 414? I’ve never seen Bert before, but he’s stabbing Simeon, who is Oliver’s mortal enemy.”
        In the days before word search functions this was extraordinarily difficult. You can bet Charles Dickens thought long and hard about his names -before- setting pen to paper.

  4. A virus wiped my book marks so I can’t provide the links. There are great sites with 2000 Latin names, both male and female. Another for Celtic names. Invaluable in my work. I will google them and get the bookmarks back.

    • Oh yes indeed. The internet, your friend! I found a ducky list of names from Roman Gaul, neatly sorted into male and female. So now everyone in my hero’s Roman villa in the south of France has grand and authentic names. But do research closely the conventions of naming in any foreign culture. Roman names have rules which changed slowly over the centuries, and you will want to get it right.
      And, a separate issue: getting those foreign names into English. My heart bleeds for people writing about China. Between the modern Pinying and the ancient forms, and then grinding them out in English — no, never. I will make up my own language sooner.

  5. The Google tip is gold. Years ago, I had a critiquer come back to me on the side and inform me that one of my characters shared a name with a Japanese porn star.* OOPS!

    So now everything goes through Google. Everything.

    *I did not ask him how he knew that.

    • when males turn twelve they go a through a secret ritual where they are endowed with the names of all known porn stars. Once you’ve heard them you can’t forget.

      But it’s a secret ritual so please don’t mention it in a book. Besides, I didn’t give you the secret name and handshake so you’ll probably get it wrong.

  6. I have a few names stashed away because I ran into them with a definition that made sense. There are a couple words in Gallic that translate to “little dark ones”. Saving that for a new race of earth dwellers.
    I read a review once by someone who didn’t like Louis L’Amour. In particular the reviewer pointed out how all the heroes (which were often titles) had names ending in vowels, he even quoted some of them, “Lando, Killoe, and ‘Sitka'”.
    I did read an article years ago that mentioned certain letters are considered more “strong” than others.
    Katharine and others of the ‘K’ ilk are considered stronger than the same names with a ‘C’ for instance which is softer.

    I have a male character named ‘Pica’ in a work in progress, technically the “a” is considered a feminine ending but changing him to Pico wouldn’t work because his smaller more graceful sister is named ‘Elite’, it’s type-casting but I swear that’s what they said their names were.

    • I would groan, but the hero of my last book but two is burdened with the middle name Garamond. And an entire subplot immediately spun into existence around that name, too, so I couldn’t go and change it to Frederick.
      Pica however is a disease, as well. (Google, always google…)