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.
Paul Gitsham is the writer of the DCI Warren Jones series.