I love choosing names for my characters, it’s one of my favourite parts of writing. I absolutely cannot connect with a character until I’ve got the right name – but how do you know when it’s ‘right’?
Sometimes names just jump into your head. With Can’t Live Without, Stella appeared fully formed and pre-named, and when I said her name out loud the surname Hill just popped up. Arch rival Loretta came to me in a similar manner, and I knew Paul’s surname would be Smart – I loved the sound of his business, Smart Homes. Bizarrely, John Dean (Stella’s ex), is always referred to by both his first and surnames in the book, and this wasn’t entirely conscious. He just is John Dean. I’m not sure why.
Other names weren’t so successful with readers. The name Lipsy (Stella’s daughter) has not been popular with everyone – some reviewers downright hate it. I don’t know why she’s called Lipsy, it just – you got it – popped into my head! I tried changing it, I really did. But she kind of insisted on keeping it.
I think the best names are those that feel right on lots of different levels, not all of them explicable. Of course you get the usual advice – make sure the name fits with the character’s age, culture, location, background etc. But you also have to think about the following more intangible factors:
- How will it sound in the readers mind? Say it out loud. Listen to the harshness or softness of the consonants. Does it fit with the character’s personality? Some names just lend themselves to unpleasant characters in fiction; others are better for heros and heroines.
- How does it look on the page? And I don’t just mean the old chestnut about not giving all your characters the same first initial (although that isn’t generally a great idea). Short names – Sam, Tim, Liz, Ann – react differently on the page to longer names. Geraldine. Alexandra. Long names take more effort to read; they can slow the pace – which is useful if that’s the effect you want. You can play around with names too – create a character with a long name and then shorten it. It can be interesting to then allow some characters to use the nickname, but not others – this gives a subtle insight into relationships.
- Can you get a double-meaning out of the name? Paul ‘Smart’ is ironic – when it comes to Stella, he’s not very smart at all. In Martin Amis’s Money, the protagonist John Self epitomises the self-serving zeitgeist of an era.
My favourite name is that of my newest character, Flora Lively. I love how it sounds and the images it brings into my mind. Sometimes a character can be formed with the help of a good name, sometimes it’s the other way around. But one thing’s for certain – choosing names should never be random.