Friday, July 23, 2010

Choosing Names for our Characters

The first time I sat down to choose names for the characters in my books, I disliked the task and frankly speaking did not pay much attention to it. The names were chosen at random without  much thought. That too only the important characters. The very minor ones like the watchman who made  just a single  appearance was left nameless. I tried to concentrate  on the story,  plot and twists.

But all this changed the day  I got a call from a publisher saying that they were interested in publishing my books. After I signed the contract, my editor and I sat down to brainstorm  names  for every   character, even characters whose claim to fame was a solitary appearance in  my illustrated books for children. My editor was very firm that  readers bond with characters and its absolutely vital to give them names. And nameless characters will never be befriended, or,  become memorable.                
When my story was commissioned for a  puffin anthology few years back,  the puffin editor called  me   to ask  for  few  changes in my story, before winding up she  asked  me why  I had not named the watchman’s cat. For me she was just the watchman’s cat : a nameless creature.  Not only was I clueless, but there was also silence  from my side. How was I supposed to think of a name during a phone conversation.  “Can I go with the name I have chosen, she asked ?” The name hater that I was   I  agreed to go along with the name she suggested. Anything to avoid that task.

But all that has changed now.  Perhaps the change has come when readers tell me that they identified with  Leo, Bunny, Nina,  or  Paro (the names of  the characters in my earlier books). This appreciation  has worked as a major  incentive.

For the two books I am currently working on, I took several days just to think up unusual names for each and every character. Full names, with the surnames included. It was difficult as both the books are based in schools and as we all know schools are swarming  with children and teachers and sundry staff.  So there were at least 60  to 70 names for each book, as well as surnames. This is no mean task for an Indian writer as we have  many  different communities and surnames typical of those communities. If I gave a child a particular surname, not only was he  tied to that community forever, he also had to follow their customs and beliefs.

I decided that just naming every  character  would not be enough. They were given individual personalities to match the names. Each name conjured up an image of the teacher or student fitting that name.  It was fun. I turned to different sources for the names: newspapers, magazines, movies, literature, religious texts,  arts;  dancers, painters and musicians (some of them have unique names). During the naming days  my ears were constantly  strained to pick up unusual names. At times I created few names  by combining two  names. This threw up many  original names.

What about you all? How do you all go about naming your characters? Do you  name your characters with the first name that jumps into your mind, or, are these names the product  of  a meticulous   research  and hard work. Do you have any tips to share?


  1. Fantastic post my fellow scribe!
    Mmmhh...My character's names come to me in all ways...dreams are quite often a source...For my fantasy novel though, I am using the african way of character's name reflect a personality trait or mirror some part of their appearance...some names I have made up...
    My main characters always seem to find a way to tell me their names but sometimes some characters go nameless for a while well I try to figure out what their name is.

  2. Great post! Actually, for my current WIP which takes place in the future, I used a combination of contemporary names for people, and made up a whole bunch. I'd take a normal name and switch a bunch of letters, and voila! I got some great ones!

  3. I am so lazy in assigning names. I pick anything and really a name says so much about a character. You've made me think--my next book--I will give more to that part.

  4. Naming characters is my FAVORITE part!!! (Love that picture above, too funny!) I usually go to baby universe and check out the selections. Other times it'll just come to me. And sometimes, I do it to honor people!

  5. I LOVE picking names and have spent a lot of time choosing the right ones. For me, it's fun because the name adds so much flavor and personality to the character.

    I've used the baby namer, but I also listen and watch for names that strick me as interesting and write them down for future use. Believe it or not, one of my best sources is the credits at the end of movies. There's always unique and interesting names there.

  6. Kim, the African way of naming sounds very interesting. Until I name a character, I realize that I am unable to do anything with him or her.

    Lydia, I like the idea of playing around with the alphabets in a name to come up with a new name. Will surely try it.

    Terri, trust me, thinking up of unusual and suitable names is fun, though I am a late convert to that exercise, I believe that a name says a lot about a character.

    Anne, as many of my characters are brats and troublemakers I cannot name them after family and friends. I think your idea of honoring people by naming characters after them is really wonderful.

    Rahma, I agree that a name adds personality and flavour to the character. Though I have never used a baby namer, it sounds good.

  7. Usually I try to look up the name's meaning, because it helps me visualize the character while I'm writing about him or her. I also try to stay true to the setting of the story. Right now I'm writing a book that takes place in Victorian England, and it has been great fun to go back and look up some of the names of the era, like "Permelia". I love that name (even though my p.o.v. character already has decided she doesn't want to know anyone named Permelia.)

  8. Sometimes I look to the past. For a villain, I might use a name of someone I didn't like. It's tricky though, so I go waaay back in the past. For strong characters, I don't even mind using names of current people I like!