What's in a name
Original baby picture credit Beth. Speech bubble added by Paul Gitsham.
Choosing Character Names
I hate choosing names. I really do regard it as a chore, rather than a pleasure.
I don't mean my core characters, that can be quite fun. Choosing a moniker that I will live with for some years is something I've grown to enjoy.
Rather I hate naming the secondary and minor characters: The shopkeeper that appears once, but has a vital clue, the brother of the victim, who is briefly a suspect and gets a whole chapter dedicated to their interview, the detective constable that accompanies a main character on an arrest. Those are the people for whom choosing a name is difficult.
For that reason, I defer choosing names until the last minute; an activity to be undertaken when I can't think of any other valid procrastination activity.
When I am writing, I use place holders. In my current manuscript, there are two witnesses to an event on New Year's Eve. They are currently known as NYE_Male and NYE_Female. Note the use of the underscore (_), it makes it easy to find and replace them later.
So where can you find names?
Sometimes, they are given to you - literally. I have numerous work colleagues begging to be included in a book. That's fun: I always write them with a couple of in-jokes; a former physics teacher with a meteorology degree, who we used to call a jumped-up geography teacher, naturally became a ... geography teacher. The namesake of a tall, skinny, bald colleague is short and stocky with a ponytail.
I also take part in 'name a character' charity auctions. Click Sargent get in character is a wonderful cause, raising money for kids affected by cancer. I always leave a couple of suitable characters (male and female) un-named for this purpose. Where possible, I will also tweak the character descriptions to include a couple of the biographical details they furnish me with to make it a bit more personal.
But where else can you find names?
My books are set in the English county of Hertfordshire. We recently visited St Albans cathedral, and whilst there, I photographed a war memorial. The plaque was 100 years old. I reasoned that those listed are likely to have 'traditional' Hertfordshire names; ideal for a character whose family have been local for several generations. As a mark of respect, I don't use real pairings of first and last names, but they provide great inspiration.
Similarly, there are lists of the 100 most popular names in a region, on the internet. There are also lists of 100 most popular baby names for a given year. That's often useful for deciding if a name is realistic for your character; there's a good chance that a cool-sounding first name for a baby born in 2000 would raise eyebrows if used for a modern-day eighty-year-old.
By all means use unusual character names, but consider if you need a little backstory to justify why they or their parents chose that name.
Names in families can be thematic. For example, take a family with three girls. The eldest is called Rose - perhaps her younger siblings are also named after flowers, such as Lily or Saffron. I'd probably steer clear of Japanese Knotweed 😁
There is a lot to consider when choosing names.
Tune in next week, when I discuss naming characters outside your own ethnicity.
Feel free to comment, either here or on social media.
Best wishes, Paul.
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Paul Gitsham is the writer of the DCI Warren Jones series.
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