How do authors come up with character names?

How do authors manage to name their characters something unique and meaningful? We asked three writers to spill the beans on how they find the perfect name.

Kat Brown
Illustration: Flynn Shore / Penguin

It’s obligatory, when discussing the naming of things, to quote Shakespeare: “What's in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet”. But that was Juliet arguing that Romeo’s status as a Montague is the only thing standing between their love – and whether in plays or novels, the naming of characters can matter quite considerably more to both reader and author.

Auctioning off the names of a character has become a lucrative way for authors to fundraise for charity – Lee Child, Margaret Atwood, and Ian Rankin have all done so, while Martin Amis and Ruth Rendell declined on the proviso that naming characters is too important (although Rendell did hand over a handsome £10,000 donation instead).

We asked three authors for their thoughts on the naming of characters: afterthought, or crucial development? And have they ever acquiesced and used the name of someone they know?

Jyoti Patel, author of The Things That We Lost

Naming characters is an interesting thing. As someone who has a name that people often trip up on – J-y-o-t-i – I've known my whole life what it means to have to think about your name. Growing up in England, I’ve always thought more about it than someone called Sarah, for example.

When I was meeting my characters, I wanted to bring in their culture and heritage, but then also think about how I was going to use their names to talk about character or to see if the reader would trip up on them.

All the characters have names which mean something in Sanskrit. Nikhil’s name means "complete". He's always referred to as Nik, even by the narrator, but his mother would always call him Nikhil and Layla, the girl he fancies, will always call him Nikhil. He has a tender moment where he's like, “It's always Nikhil. Never Nik,” as if she's there for all of him. His late father, Elliot, fought to have a son, and naming him Nikhil made him feel complete, because he lost a brother who was called Nick. And then Agni, Avani’s mother, means fire because she’s quite a violent storm of a human.

I could have spelled Avani without the a, which is how it is often spelled. I wanted the reader to trip up on it, and think “Oh, it’s pronounced Av-ah­-nee,” for when she meets Elliot and he says her name correctly, Avnee. I wanted the reader to see a name and think it's easy to pronounce, but then actually be like, "Oh, it's pronounced another way", because I've had that my whole life.

Did having these names as sort of guidance help at all in terms of working out what the characters do next?
It did, because it summarises the essence of the person. These were names that I had at the start of the novel, and they stayed the same. Their names were the North Star of what I want this character be. It was really nice for me, because for so much of my life I was almost at odds with my name. Naming them made me have a second love for my name and what it means. Because when I was growing up, it was like, "Why can I just have an easy name to pronounce, like Nikhil, that you can see and you can read it immediately?" I understood a little of what my parents would have felt when they named me.

Has anyone asked you to name a character after them?

I have had people ask if they can be a character in my next book, but the answer is always no. I don't want to impose someone else's personality on someone who's meant to be totally fictional. What I have done in the book is taken characters who aren't good and changed their name so that the people in my life won't be offended.

There was a horrible character called Finn, originally. A couple of my friends have kids named Finn, so I changed it to Phil. The same for Simon, who's the guy who scratches Nik’s car at university. He was originally a John, but then I met and became really good friends with a John, and I was like, I couldn't do that to him – but I don’t know anyone called Simon!

Do you have any favourite names from books that you wish you could use?

There's so many characters with big, gorgeous names, like Heathcliff, that mirror who they are. When I think about names for future books, I love Irish names like Saoirse and Aoife because they have the same thing of being spelled a certain way, and when you’re in the UK, you don't really know what to do with it.  I love Irish culture, and I also think there’s an affinity between Sanskrit names and Irish names. They have these beautiful meanings that a lot of British names don’t.

Finding the name is part of finding the character, and you always know when a name doesn’t fit. It might have something to do with how names conjure certain associations and how these associations situate each character in the world they inhabit.

For Close to Home, I went with names I heard a lot when I was growing up. There were a lot of Martys and Fintys and Seans. There were a few Mairéads, although not many, and that was part of the allure. Mairéad had to be somewhat elusive, she has her own s*** going on, and I wanted to project that feeling onto her and use her name as a kind of entry point. Names have strong associations in the North of Ireland, particularly in terms of which community you come from.

Have you named a character after someone you know, and who was

I’ve named a few characters in the book after people in real life, then there are characters who are explicitly based on those people, real names and all. Mary Denvir is one of them. She’s the former custodian of Bookfinders Bookshop & Cafe, which was a bit of an institution before developers swooped in and decided to gut it out and replace it with a Caffè Nero.

It was the place where people like Muldoon and Heaney hung out back in the day, and when I first started knocking about with people who were studying at Queen’s, that’s where we went – usually around four o’clock in the afternoon, when Mary liked to approach the few remaining customers and tell them they had to leave, she was about to have an important "business meeting", at which point the door was locked, bottles of wine were opened, cigarettes rolled, and a merry time was had. She was a legend, really, and I couldn’t write a scene set in her bookshop without including her in it. The other people I’ve mentioned in the book will remain nameless, but they know who they are, and that’s the important thing.

Did the names of your characters change over the course of writing? How did that impact them or the story?

They were all pretty much fixed from day one, except Sean. He was called Mick at first, back when the book was more memoir than fiction, but I needed to remove myself from the subject matter. Having the protagonist share my name made it difficult for me to have any sort of distance.

My mother wanted to call me Sean. My father refused. For him, growing up in Belfast with an explicitly Irish name meant being discriminated against anytime you applied for a job or tried to find a place to live. It meant being stopped at a British Army checkpoint and pushed up against a wall, spread-eagled, with a gun jammed into the back of your head while they searched your car. It meant internment, police brutality, kangaroo courts, and the very real possibility of being kidnapped and murdered by loyalist death squads.

The fact that he couldn’t envisage things improving within my lifetime – I was born in 1990, four years before the ceasefire – speaks to the extent of the bigotry he was subjected to back then, during the '70s and '80s in particular, when the structures of social domination were more explicitly sectarian. Using the name Sean allowed me to see the character almost as another version of myself, and that made it easier for me to find the right narrative distance. It allowed me to take liberties in a way I wasn’t able to before – with voice, with character, with the story itself – and that opened up all sorts of possibilities for what the book could be.

What character name from someone else’s book do you wish you could use yourself?

Molly Bloom. It’s perfect.

Naming my characters was one of the fun bits when it came to writing Theatre of Marvels. There are Victorian census reports that enable you to see the top 200 baby names of the period, so that was my first point of call. I already knew one of my male leads would be called Lucien (it’s one of my favourite names), and Zillah just jumped out at me when I was going down the list. I later learned it meant ‘shadow’ or ‘darkness’, which felt serendipitous in terms of the romantic sub-plot (no spoilers!) but was also perfectly in keeping with the themes of the book and how Zillah grapples with her mixed-race identity.

Have you ever named a character after someone you know?

There’s a baby in my work-in-progress who shares a name with my dog. I thought it would be a sweet way to recognise that she’s been there with me throughout the writing process – admittedly not always helping though, as she sits on my laptop and stops me typing if she thinks I’m not paying her enough attention.

How important are names to helping you 'find' the character?

Naming is something that is particularly important to me in thematic terms. In Theatre of Marvels my protagonist is struggling to come to terms with her identity and on top of that she’s playing a role on stage that makes her increasingly uncomfortable as the novel progresses. When Lucien probes her on her surname she says, "I told you before to call me Zillah. It’s all the name I need."

She feels that a surname would mark her out as a possession and, as she clings fiercely to her status as having been born free – not a slave – a surname is something she actively resists. People who were enslaved were often given names that were not their own. Zillah exerting control over what she’s called is one way in which she finds agency in a society in which she’s largely powerless.

Did anyone's name change over the course of writing?

I have a bad habit of using placeholder names and then changing them deep into the editing process, which I know is not ideal! Marcus Crillick started out with a different surname, but it wasn’t working, and I knew I had to change it. I was struggling to come up with something and asked my nana for help. I explained that the character was hard and sharp, and I wanted that to be reflected in his name, maybe through a ‘ss’ ending which would point to his snakiness or a ‘ck’ sound. Crillick was her first suggestion and as soon as she said it, I knew she’d nailed it.

What are your favourite names from other writers?

I love the names Charles Dickens gave his characters: they’re so distinctive. If someone gave you a list of character names you could probably pick out the ones he came up with and there’s something about them that invokes their personalities and the period he’s writing in.

I love the way Scrooge has become eponymous for someone miserly, but if I had to choose a favourite it’s probably Pumblechook, a minor character who appears in Great Expectations. For me it’s a name that instantly conjures a physicality and gives a sense of the ridiculous, which fits perfectly with his characterisation. From a technical perspective it’s so economical and effective – it means that even the most peripheral or flat character is given life and becomes memorable.

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