Round Robin Character Naming

Rhobin’s question this month comes in two parts. How do you select your characters’ names? Are there any you avoid?

As I set my writing mostly in the UK, I try to find regional names. This is relatively easy for surnames.

I was once told a story by a professional colleague. He was living in London for work, but when he went home to the north east and tried to book a table in a restaurant, he was thrilled to be told by the waiter: “I’m sorry, sir, Gunn isn’t enough, I’ll need a first name.” He went on to say that was when he knew he was home.

Geographical names can break both ways. It may mean a character is local born and bred or it may identify one as having come into the area from elsewhere. Both results are useful.

First names are a whole other ball game. How often does a writer find themselves with a stuck letter? Every first name you think of starts with a V or an E or a T. That is a major irritation and I can spend quite a bit of time scratching my head till I move away from that dominating letter and achieve a variety.

Writing historical fiction also provides challenges. There weren’t that many first names in regular use. In real life and times of, for example, the Tudors, many men were called William or Thomas (Will or Tom). So, in a way, if you do name each character with an individual name, you’re missing out on historical accuracy. On the other hand, it helps the reader.

In my own family, many of the women were called Janet or Jessie. There’s one man in the family tree who married three times and two of his wives were called Janet. James and John pop up, too, and Joan and Agnes. Elizabeth or its derivatives, Liz, Lizzie, Liza, Bunty, Betty, Bet have had a strong influence in twentieth century choices.

I would usually seek out an appropriate first name and, where regional variation exists, eg Bet in the north of England, Bunty in central Scotland, go for that. However, in my historical fiction I’ve tended to seek out or make up suitably aged names. Mariah semed to me to be both elegant and old. Bella was chosen as a diminutive of Isabella and less formal because my heroine had flaming red hair and was a little headstrong. The Scottish Regency I’m working on at the moment has a heroine who simply refused to be Louise and is now Louisa. Three cheers for Find & Replace. I think she’s the first of my characters who’s done this.

Are there any I avoid?

Apart from Judith, I avoid Shakespearian names like Cordelia or Goneril. I avoid using place names for people. I’m careful over Biblical names – have they come into general use like Josh, Mary, Elizabeth or would they be geographically correct? If not, is there a reason a person with that name has moved. In today’s global village society, there may well be.

I have no characters with a double first name like Marie-Claire. That’s simply personal preference and if I wrote a book with a French main or major character, I might well opt for a double first name. Some of them are both pretty and romantic.

How do others approach this? why not visit the blogs below?

Anne

Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea

Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/

Anne Stenhouse https://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com

Victoria Chatham http://www.victoriachatham.com

Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/

Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog

Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-2i7

Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/

Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/

Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/

Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/

Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobincourtright.com

27 thoughts on “Round Robin Character Naming

  1. Hi Anne, I get that ‘stuck letter’ too! Thanks for mentioning it. I thought it was just me 🙂 I get round it by looking up baby names starting with a different letter.
    Find and Replace has been a godsend to me, too! I enjoyed finding out how you named your own characters. A great topic again this month.

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  2. Here in the US south double names are common and as you pointed out with your regional surnames, immediately alerts the reader to where that person in from. You almost never find someone growing up in Boston named Billy Bob but in the Carolinas, and there rest of the south that along with EmmySue and dozens of others are expected.

    Like tour comment about the surname being common in different regions too. Good things to consider.

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  3. Yes, the naming of characters can be tricky, Anne – a bit of a minefield. I try to avoid the names of friends and family – especially for less likeable characters 🙂 I have the Penguin dictionary of First Names which I find is a very handy resource.

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    • Hi Anne, I’m picking up a lot of useful references from the posts. I’ll remember this one, too. I have a wonderful tome dedicated to Scottish surnames which I bought with a writing comp prize book token. Anne

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  4. Names are definitely a huge part of setting up our characters. I had not thought so much about using derivitives or double names but I don’t think I’ve yet created a character for whom either would apply. Love the post.

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  5. I don’t think I’ve ever considered using locations as a basis of how I choose a name. Nationalities and time periods, yes, but not actual locations. Maybe that’s because, where I live, in California, we are such a mosh pit of names you can’t pinpoint a place where a surname would come from, other than ancestry, of course.

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    • Hi Marci, Todays’ geographic movement of individuals is remarkable in some ways, but in others, not so much. Before, whole villages or artisan groups would move giving rise to enclaves of Europeans around the world or French in London etc. I recently discovered that my home county attracted many Latvian miners in the late nineteenth century. all fascinating and useful material for us writers. Anne

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  6. Anne, I identify with stuckness. It’s not so much for names as ordinary words. I use some word, say, “ordinary,” and then it comes up in the next paragraph, and two paragraphs further down, and when I re-read, I feel like pulling my hair (only I ain’t got none).
    And I’d like to congratulate Louisa for standing up for herself. Who are YOU to decide what her name should be?
    🙂
    Bob

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    • Hi Bob, Oh, I recognise the ‘stuck-like’ tendency of ordinary words. It’s a reason all on its own for never sending anything off without letting it lie. Yes, one’s characters often attract more sympathy than their creator and I can already see Louisa is one such. Anne

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  7. I enjoyed your anecdote about the author whose last name was Gunn. When me faither from Glesga was doing his mandatory 2 years in the British Army, his best mate was a guy named Johnny Gunn. Since me faither’s name was actually Ian, he preferred John, but in the army he was simply called “Mac.” I didn’t realize Gunn was such a common last name–though that probably depends on where you are, right?

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    • Hi Fiona, thanks for dropping by. The John/Ian ‘thing’ has always fascinated me. I suppose it has something to do with Gaelic spelling – must ask someone who knows. Yes, Gunn is a geographic name – Scottish north-east. Others would be Sutherland, Stirling, my own name Stenhouse (Stirling area) Elliot (Borders) and so on. Anne

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