I’m the kind of person who reads Dictionaries of First Names for fun. When I was a teenager and writing my provisionally entitled ‘epic novel’ (still a WIP), I drew up huge lists of characters’ names complete with family trees, which I also loved drawing (although the discovery of these scared off at least one boyfriend who thought I was choosing baby names).
The point is that I can get really bogged down with names. I spent 20 years drawing up family trees before it occurred to me that if I were ever actually going to write a book, I probably ought to add some other words, and maybe a plot as well.
However, I’m sorry to admit that my love affair is also shamefully one-sided. I like distinctive names, but only for women. When it comes to men, I tend to lose interest. I don’t know why. I know names need to suit male characters just as much as they need to suit female ones, but I still can’t seem to get excited. Sometimes I use provisional names, like place-holders, whilst I get on with writing the story, though these do have an unfortunate tendency of sticking.
Which is probably why I almost named the men in my first book after Frozen characters. In my defence, I have small children and watch a lot of cartoons, but it still took me an alarming amount of time to realise that if you put names like Sven, Olaf and Hans together then somebody’s going to notice.
So to avoid future mistakes here are some rules I’ve come up with for choosing names.
- Don’t be too distinctive
You can get away with one unusual name, but too many can look contrived (to avoid future accusations of hypocrisy, I freely admit that I don’t always follow my own advice). Also, not many people are Dickens. I wish I could come up with names like Augustus Snodgrass and Affery Flintwinch, but I can’t. Unless you’re brilliant at this, maybe don’t be too inventive.
- Avoid similar sounding names
This is my biggest issue with the Anglo-Saxons. There are so many names beginning with Ed or Ae that they start to blend together. When these belong to less distinctive secondary characters, this can be a problem. But it also leads to more fun name-based research… excellent for procrastination.
- Be historically and geographically accurate
This might sound obvious, but it’s important to check name derivation, especially in historical novels. Some names weren’t used until comparatively recently. Olivia, Jessica and Cordelia, for example, are all names that were either invented or popularised by Shakespeare. Pamela and Wendy were invented by Richardson and Barrie. And, just to state the blindingly obvious, it’s highly unlikely that you’d have met a Kylie or Chardonnay roaming the medieval countryside.
It’s also important to remember that names in the past also varied geographically. The hero of my first book was initially called Sven du Danemark, but became Svegn to sound more Danish (I actually preferred Svein, but this was more of a Norwegian variation).
- Look out for real people
Before you commit to a name it’s a good idea to check online, just to make sure you’re not treading on anyone’s toes, real or fictional. Unlikely as it is that you’d name a character Elizabeth Bennett without that ringing a bell, there might be other less famous characters with the name that you’ve chosen. You also don’t want your character to be associated with anyone famous since it might warp a reader’s perception of them. Would you be convinced by a shy and retiring governess called Victoria Beckham? So check first.
- Keep them short
This is just common sense. Obviously your characters aren’t border collies and you don’t have to keep shouting their names, but you do need to type them. Long names slow down the rate at which you type, which can become really annoying, so decide if you really want your heroine to be called Dayanaria before you commit to it. Or find a good abbreviation.
- Ask other people for ideas
It’s always good to get a fresh perspective. I was unhappy with the name I’d chosen for my newest hero, a soldier from twelfth-century Frankia, and happened to mention this to my mother. She then provided an exhaustive list of Germanic names based on her vast and (to me) inexplicable knowledge of international football. A quick check to see whether any of these were actually in use in the twelfth century and bingo, I have a new name for my hero and I think it’s perfect!
Now he just needs a book… So I’d better go and write that then.