Tuesday, March 29, 2011


One weird thing I have noticed when I write is how easy it is to come up with names for characters when the story has ripened well enough to be written. Yick, that's an awkward sentence.

Anyway, if I am struggling with names, chances are, I don't know or understand the character well enough to begin writing that story. What's wonderful is when the name seems to float right in, almost as if the character is telling you her name.

I've always loved the name Jane Eyre - such a grounded first name, followed by the sound of "air" - perfect for that character. Then Edward Rochester - what a perfectly rhythmical name for a brooding, Byronic hero. I had trouble though with his ex wife who was supposed to be a wild, romantic nut job -- you would think, back in the days of the Brontes, a name like Flora or Stella maybe. But Charlotte Bronte chose Bertha.

I would name my diner waitress with the dark roots and the bad manicure Bertha, not the madwoman in the attic. But that's okay; the rest of the novel wasn't too shabby. 

Recently, I began writing a first chapter featuring a difficult protagonist. Only I could not think of her name. I could see what she was doing, I had her voice down, but like I said, she was difficult. I read Wiccan naming charts, looked at ancient Celtic names, browsed my old baby name books and even ate a bowl of soup while looking at a phone book. Nothing stuck. So she's not ready to be written.

My friends who don't write, and these are the ones I actually speak to, not the bloggy ones, don't understand why I abandoned the difficult protagonist because I seemed to like her so much. But I think my writing friends (the ones whose voices I have never heard, the ones whose thoughts I read instead), might get it. If you get to a certain point, and the name isn't there, it's time to go on to a different project. It's hard to explain to non-writers; I'm not abandoning my witchy character - she's just not ready yet.

It's probably because names are so important, even in life. Imagine if the Prince of England were marrying a Bambi or a Tammy. Wouldn't work. It sort of has to be a Kate or maybe a Millicent. I wouldn't name my difficult character any of those names. I was thinking of Leda, something short like that. But it didn't sound authentic.

It's not like I don't have lots of other stories to work on; I just sort of mourned that one because I could envision the plot so well. I feel like I'll be looking at a class roster one day in July, and say, "Morgana! That's it." (No, she's not a Morgana)

But I know she's not ready yet. I have no idea how other writers generate names. I know I have to disqualify a lot of names if they are anywhere near the names of my kids or their friends. And I don't want anyone's name in my immediate or extended family either. So the choices get narrower.

How do you generate names? Do you ever change them mid-manuscript if they don't seem to fit?



storyqueen said...

I completely agree. Knowing the name is very important. I am getting ready to begin a new story, and can't really do it until I have the right names in place.

However, I have changed a name early on in a ms when it didn't fit. So, sometimes the name gets revealed to you as you write more, you know?


Anne Gallagher said...

Because I write historicals I always go to old census sites and see if I can generate a name from there.

All of my main characters always have plain names, Robert, Jane, Wiliam.

All of my secondaries always have unusual names like Olivia, Phyllidia, Welbey.

All of my horses are named after Greek or Roman history. Troy, Draco, Mars.

You just have to really look for something, and it sucks not to be able to write her story just yet, but when you find her name, the words will just flow.

Anne Spollen said...

That's a thought, Shelley. As they reveal themselves more, we figure out what they want to be called.

Yeah, you do have to change names sometimes when they don't fit, even in the middle of the work.

That's a great idea, Anne - the old census sites. And yeah, once you figure out the names, or they are revealed, things happen.

Medeia Sharif said...

I use baby name websites.

I've changed names in the middle of a manuscript. The initial name is a good placeholder until I figure something out.

Marcia said...

I have to have the name very early in the process of creating the character. I've only changed a name once, in a WIP that is still IP.

Anne Spollen said...

A place holder, Medeia, that's what I can't do. I guess I have to have the name before I can move forward. But you're right in theory; it's like a "draft" name.

It's tough to change names, Marcia. I really have to think about doing that, then I go through this whole process where it doesn't feel right. But sometimes it's necessary.

Glynis said...

Interesting post,Anne. My latest post will show you my predicament with my character names. Too many J's. After three years I have changed names to strengthen my work.