As an author, choosing a name for your characters is a tricky business. Each one has to fit their individual appearance, personality and age whilst not reminding you of someone in your own life; otherwise, instead of picturing your fictional character, you’ll envision that particular friend/ enemy/ colleague/ old classmate from primary school.
In my two novels to date, the naming of characters has created several unexpected difficulties:
1. Unintentional duplication. Having finished my first book, Landsliding, one of my beta readers came to see me to discuss her comments on the draft of the novel. To my amazement, she pointed out that two characters were both called Gail and asked me if I’d done this on purpose. I said she was mistaken – of course I hadn’t called two different characters by the same name; why on earth would I do that? – but, on closer inspection of the text, to my surprise I realised she was correct. Two of my characters were called the same thing and I hadn’t even noticed. I then became paranoid and had to go through the text making notes of each character’s name to make sure I hadn’t repeated myself again! Nightmare.
2. Changing names at the end of the novel. Sometimes you get to the end of writing your book and realise that a name hasn’t worked for the character in question. This happened in The Fortnight when I had to go back to every mention of that person and replace it with the new name (in this case, Molly’s boyfriend Josh) which was time-consuming and irritating but not disastrous. Somehow the original name I’d selected for him just didn’t seem suitable – I don’t know exactly why that was – but the minute I thought of him as ‘Josh’ I knew it was the right choice.
3. Duplication of names from one novel to the next. When I first started writing The Fortnight I was shocked to find I’d used several of the same names as in Landsliding – Peter, Aaron and Martin were just three examples of my repetition. When you think of all the names there are to choose from, it seems amazing that I hadn’t been more imaginative; for some reason I’d just reverted to names I’d already used before. Once I realised this, I hastily changed them to something different and made a mental note to be more aware of my selections .
4. Calling a difficult character by the name of a friend. This happened in The Fortnight with the character Elaine who displays many annoying characteristics. I considered calling her something else so as not to upset my great friend who shares her name, but in the end decided to give the real Elaine a special mention/ apology in the Acknowledgements section at the end of the novel. I didn’t want her to think there was any connection intended between the character’s personality traits and her own!
Overall I’d say that the naming of characters is a really interesting part of being an author. In a way it makes you feel powerful – you alone have the ability to decide their identity – but the decision-making process is a difficult one. Get it wrong and your character will always feel oddly awkward; not quite fully formed. Pick too many names beginning with the same letter and your readers may become confused. Choose a name closely identified with someone famous and your reader will always imagine the real person (for example, Rihanna, Boris or Camilla) instead of your character with their own idiosyncrasies and personality.
So next time you’re reading a novel, do pay careful attention to the characters’ names and remember how much thought and effort will have gone into each of the choices!