Choosing, and changing, the names of your characters

The important and enjoyable task of naming fictional characters is not always straightforward.

Most people find that certain names suggest certain features of personality and appearance. This reflects their own life experience. So, while the name Carol might remind me of the placid blonde in my class at school, you might picture Carol as a feisty brunette.

There is nothing to be done about these individual variations, but all names have universal associations too, and it is worth looking them up. Some names relate to particular ethnic, cultural or religious groups or periods in history. Some are intended to convey personal qualities such as courage or charm.

Names which belonged to well-known celebrities, Diana or Marilyn for example, are probably best avoided. It is also best to avoid using several similar names, such as Sara and Sandra, in the same book.

Modern word-processing technology makes it deceptively simple to change characters’ names. Such changes can cause problems, as I have found in my own work and when reviewing manuscripts for friends. ┬áSometimes the same person is called by different names in different parts of the book. It should be easy to avoid this by using the “Find and Replace” function, however this powerful tool can have serious unwanted effects if carelessly used. For example changing Amy to Katy, without matching the case or specifying whole words only, would cause and the word “dreamy” to turn into “dreKaty”.

My own over-sensitivity to being criticised or offending people has caused me concern around the choice of names. What if one of the several Roberts I know is upset if he finds that I have called one of my less attractive characters by his name? What if a complete stranger brings a libel action because I have unwittingly used his or her name in a book? Such fears led me to change a few names in my first novel just before it went to print. But I still thought of my characters by their original names, and when I wrote the second novel I used one of them by mistake. Fortunately, while writing the third, I realized what I had done and have been able to get round it by introducing a new twist to the plot.

In conclusion, it is best to avoid last-minute name changes, but if you do decide they are necessary be sure to follow up with a careful check of the whole text.