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.  Sometimes 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.



I’ve always taken care about the choice of names. Whenever a new cat comes into our home I spend many happy hours deciding what to call it. I sometimes also give names to inanimate objects such as computers or cars.

Names can have a major influence in many spheres of life – the development of a child’s character, the marketing of a new product, the psychological impact of a medical diagnosis. For each individual, the significance of a name will depend on its cultural associations, whether it sounds pleasing, and how it looks when written down. I can ‘see’ certain names in different colours with my mind’s eye.

But the idea that names can have any metaphysical significance, or predict the future in some way, never seemed credible to me until I started thinking about a couple of my experiences.

When I moved to New Zealand 12 years ago, I needed a new email address and chose the username of ‘Starflower’ simply because I liked it (though I no longer have it now). It was not until two or three years later that the ‘flower’ part acquired significance, when I began studying the Bach flower remedies and found that one of these, Star of Bethlehem, is also known as Starflower. And about ten years later I developed an interest in astrology, so that completes the ‘star’ part.

Another example: ‘Bach’ is an unusual name where I come from, and one that I would rather avoid because I find it difficult to pronounce, however my two great enthusiasms in recent years have been the flower remedies of Edward Bach and the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Maybe just a couple of trivial coincidences, or maybe a little glimpse of esoteric patterns we do not understand.