What’s in a name…?

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Romeo Montague, Elizabeth Bennet, Huckleberry Finn, Anna Karenina, Atticus Finch, Scarlet O’Hara, Holden Caulfield, Hermione Granger, Owen Meany and Garp.

Those are some pretty compelling names for fictional characters. Some long familiar, others more recently introduced to our collective consciousness.

How can I possibly come up with names for my characters that are at once authentic and memorable, like Anne Shirley or Harry Potter, or distinctive and unforgettable, such as Albus Dumbledore or Daenerys Targaryen?

I have spent many, many hours pondering the possibilities. In the car after dropping my daughters at school; while waiting for a doctor’s appointment; even out running, with or without my canine companion. And, far more often than is good for me, I’ve found myself contemplating the options in the wee small hours, when everyone else is sound asleep.

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I’ve compared books of babies’ names with an old copy of the White Pages, trying to combine first and last names in a way that clicks. I’ve roamed library aisles, wondering whether I could get away with linking the first name of a celebrity chef with the surname of a metaphysical poet.

Many suggestions from my book club chums were either outrageous or disgusting, but I may yet end up calling the strict school principal June Broomhead. Betty Beaver, however, definitely won’t be making an appearance in my manuscript.

Then I heard about the name generator function in Scrivener (the novel-writing software), which allows writers to set parameters for the names they seek – such as gender, ethnic origin, first name meanings – and click to create a list of possibilities.

Sounds brilliant, right?

The only problem is, my initial searches have predominantly produced names that are so quirky, idiosyncratic and original that I can’t imagine any of them being given to a girl growing up in a blue-collar suburb of Perth in the 1970s. Barnabas Bel and Musa Demanche sound more like Hogwarts students than freckle-faced bookworms trying to outwit a bully.

So, my task is to write descriptions of each of the key characters I’m creating, and then try to find some way to give each of them a convincing name. It’s time.

I suppose, if you think about it, some of those names at the top of this post may not have sounded quite so convincing when they were coined. It’s really only their familiarity that makes them seem, well, real. So perhaps there’s hope for Barnabas Bel yet…

Originally published as The Neophyte Novelist column in Good Reading.

5 thoughts on “What’s in a name…?

  1. Louise Allan says:

    Maybe you’re thinking too hard about it? I did it by gut instinct, often the first name that came into my head. I occasionally searched my baby name book and made a list, but there was usually one name that I felt was right. I think you’re right that author’s name a character and then the character becomes the name, much in the way we name our children before we know their personalities, but then we can’t imagine them being called anything different. I changed only one name in the whole book, that of a minor character, Norman, because it was too similar to Nora (one of my main characters). Just go with it your instinct, I reckon. x

    Like

  2. Maureen Eppen says:

    Thanks for the wise words, Louise. I’ve sincerely been trying to just go with instinct, but I’ve really struggled. I think I may have my main character’s name — the surely if I did have it I would know without any doubt…?

    Liked by 1 person

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