The Name Game


I guess we all know that names are really important when writing fiction.

Recently highly-esteemed author Susan Elizabeth Phillips said that she had struggled to write a story about a character called Ben, but one day she realised she should change his name, and then the story seemed to fall into place. I completely understand where she was coming from. I’ve even had a story in my head that I couldn’t begin because I had no name for the protagonist, even though I had a substantial amount of plot figured out.

You might rationalise this and say that the name is irrelevant, at least during the writing process. That characters are fictional, mere creations, they have no will to change or do or possess one name more than another.

But plenty of authors will disagree with this, stating that their characters often surprise them with plot detours and unplanned events and traits, and that characters inhabit a name that is right for them.

Character names matter because in society, names refer to a specific person and conjure up a specific range of behaviours and traits. I’ve heard people say ‘I hate the name Laura.’  (Just as an example and nothing detrimental intended to the Lauras of the world!) What they really mean is, ‘I once knew someone called Laura and she was horrid, and now whenever I meet someone with that name, I remember what she did.’

Names are of their time, their cultural and social background. If you think of a name, it will very often conjure up an idea of a person. If I say to you Madge, you will likely think of an older lady, not too well off. If I say Alex, you might stumble because that name can be used for males and females, and has the advantage of working for people from various nations and times in history. If I say Harrison, you will first think of Harrison Ford unless you personally know someone else with that name. If I say Daisy, you might possibly think of the former Countess of Warwick, but you’re far more likely to think of a small child as the name is very much back ‘in’. All too often we think of celebrities or those who are infamous rather than famous. Famous or infamous names have a long history. For this reason, not many little boys are christened Adolf, whereas a hundred years ago, it was a popular name. So names do not exist in a vacuum, waiting to be plucked randomly from the shelf.

If you are looking for a name for a major character, or a pen name for yourself, or a series title which will contain a name, it is vital you do your research. Google and check Amazon at the very least, because it is all too easy to choose a name already in use, and you don’t want to lose sales or become crowded out by too many occurrences of the same name. I almost had a main character called Ben Sherman. At first I couldn’t understand how good, how ‘right’ the two names sounded together. Until I decided to just have a quick check…I’m glad I did. Yes, in real life people do have the same name, but it isn’t a good idea for it to happen in fiction. I recently edited a trilogy of books for a client, each story featuring a different brother, as is common these days. Sadly the working series title was the same as a well-selling high-profile series already published, I discovered upon checking, and the series title was changed.

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but in fiction-writing terms, finding the right name is crucial to writing the right story, and getting it ‘out there’ to the waiting readers.