Naming Characters: How Changing A Name Changes Everything

Some of you know that I have another writing life as a novelist: Babes in Captivity and Suburbanistas are two of the novels I’ve published — my new one, called The Tiny Forever, is coming out in February 2012.   One of my novel-writing mentors was the mystery writer Elizabeth George, who taught me that a novel begins with the creation of its characters.  And the characters start with their names.

The right name is essential for building the other qualities that will make a character come alive on the page, George believes (and I believe too).  When you’re working on a piece of fiction — and I know some of you are interested in names primarily as writers, not parents — and the story or book just isn’t coming together, sometimes the problem is that your character has the wrong name.

I decided that might be the problem with my new novel, which I’ve been laboring over for three years now.  One of my three main characters, a flower child whose role in the story unfolds in the late 1970s, was named Lily.  But I wanted her to be tougher than that, I decided: a scrappy tomboy fighting her way through the world.

And so I changed her name to Billie.

My inspiration was Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News? One of Atkinson’s main characters is sixteen-year-old Reggie, alone in the world and desperate, yet winning and resourceful.  I admired the way Atkinson wrote from Reggie’s point of view – third person, but intimate – and decided I wanted my character, Lily, to be more like Reggie.

But when I changed Lily‘s age — from 23 down to 19 — and situation — from a college graduate living in New York to a dropout riding cross-country with her father’s ashes and a handgun in her backpack — I realized I had to change her name.  That’s when Billie was born.  The name Billie made sense because I thought this character’s father might have named her after Billie Holiday, and because, like the character, the name sounds kind of Western and kind of irreverent.

You’d think that naming characters would be a snap for me.  Yet as every name lover knows, choosing names in theory and finding the ideal one for an actual person (even when that person is fictional) are two very different things.

Name problems can be easier to solve in other people’s novels (and with other people’s children).  A girl born in the 1950s with sisters named Joanne and Debbie would more likely be Carolyn than Caroline, I recently told one writer friend, pointing to nameberry’s popularity charts.  Caroline was rarely used outside of the upper classes before the Kennedys popularized it in the early 1960s.  Another character, born in the 1930s, might have been Lillian or Louise, but certainly not LeeAnn.

Yet I feel less certain about my own poor Billie, whose name I’m still not sure is right.  Sure, Billie fits the stereotype of the tough tomboy, but maybe it would be more interesting if her name were something ultra-feminine, like Violetta or Angelina?

Plus one of my other main characters, whom Billie spends a lot of time with, also has a name that starts with a B, Bridget, and that name is carved in stone.  As a reader, I hate it when character’s names or physical descriptions, even their hair colors, are too similar.

Or maybe the problem is that the character is not really a Billie after all?  I’m going to take one more in-depth survey of her persona, make one more attempt to define who she is, and thus settle on the perfect name.

In this way, at least, creating characters is easier than naming (and raising) children: You can, at will, reinvent their looks, their personalities, and their names, again and again.

This post was adapted from a guest blog I wrote for my friend Christina Baker Kline’s blog on writing a novel, A Writing Year.   Christina‘s wonderful new book, Bird in Hand, comes out in August.

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19 Responses to “Naming Characters: How Changing A Name Changes Everything”

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Beth Says:

July 16th, 2009 at 4:14 am

Just a thought…if your character’s name was something ultra-feminine, she sounds like someone who would likely have chosen to use a more spunky, less precious nickname. So perhaps you can have both–a name that suits her personality, and the reveal of the name that reflects who she is not, or what she rejects, or what her parents expected her to embody.

Elizabeth George is one of my favorite authors; I imagine she was a tremendous mentor.

Grace Says:

July 16th, 2009 at 7:58 am

I think Violetta sounds brilliant.

Jeff Abbott Says:

July 16th, 2009 at 9:08 am

I’ve had 11 novels published (#11 actually comes out next week) and I’ve used Pam and Linda’s books for naming characters for years. The arrangements they did of style, popularity, energy, etc., were extremely helpful to me in finding the right name for the right character. (And that’s such a relief when name perfectly suits character–you can almost see the character stepping forward, fully formed). I have had interesting debates with my editors, though, if I opted for a very stylish name for a character that they thought was far too out there. I’ve often found the perfect name for a character, when stuck writing a scene, just paging through Linda and Pam’s books.

And the books were a great help to me and my wife in naming my sons, too. 🙂 Sorry, I normally just lurk here but so glad to see a discussion of naming characters.

cristinag Says:

July 16th, 2009 at 9:41 am

Aurora turns into Rory.
Georgina turns into George.
I am sure there are many others, lets go commentators!

JNE Says:

July 16th, 2009 at 10:21 am

I’m not a writer. I’ve never really thought about naming characters, although when I read novels I am sometimes bemused by the names the author picks and sometimes in awe that the character in the novel so perfectly defines and reflects the name chosen.

I’m wondering, since your character’s parents named her in the late 50s, what her parents are like… because that would have a huge influence on her name. I think I agree with Beth that perhaps her parents would name her one thing and she would identify with an aspect of that name.

You mention she’s irreverent, a little tomboy, and a flower child… but was that due to the influence in that direction from her parent(s), or as a reaction/ counter-culture to her parent(s)? If it’s the former, then a name that leans a little hippy, but stays true to the late 50s, like Robin, Melody, or April. Robin could be made further tomboy-ish as Rob or Robbi. Melody could be Mel. If it’s the latter, then maybe her name was ultra-feminine as you and Beth suggest – Jacqueline (Jack instead of Jackie could reveal your character’s irreverence), or Martha (Marti), Maureen (Mo), Michelle (Mitch), Charlotte or Charlene (Charlie), etc. Maybe her parents’ background and where in the states she was born/raised would influence that name choice.

It was fun to get a glimpse into what goes into the process of naming characters – thanks for your post!

Navi Says:

July 16th, 2009 at 10:25 am

Maybe she could want to be called Billie, but is actually named Willamina / Wilhelmina.

It’s sounds quite feminine, but it was not prominent in the time period you were referring two. Wilma and Willie, however, were in the top 400, while Willa was in the top 800.

The fact that it means strong-willed warrior according to many sites, means it may not be appropriate for a flower child. Though other sites, including your own, claim it means protector, which could sound very appropriate.

susan Says:

July 16th, 2009 at 11:48 am

I think Candace would be a cool name for your character. Nice blog!

stephanie_elizabeth Says:

July 16th, 2009 at 4:05 pm

I write, too, and find that naming characters is the hardest thing ever. I became obsessed with name because of this, and have used the Baby Name Bible for this all the time. Sometimes the names of my characters change several times before I am finally satisfied.

Pam Says:

July 16th, 2009 at 5:58 pm

Thanks, everyone, but especially Jeff — so glad to hear the books have been of help!

Boston Girl Says:

July 16th, 2009 at 6:01 pm

This one sure hit a spot with me. I’ve been writing since I was 13 years old, and for me one of the most fun parts of writing is naming my characters.

Weirdly, it’s pretty simple for me. I’ll usually start by creating the barest ghost for the character’s base, and then name the character. Once I’ve given him or her a name, I can almost immediately see what the character looks like and what sort of person he or she is. For me, almost every time, the name makes the character; and changing the name will change the character — often in surprisingly fundamental ways.

I don’t have any hard-and-fast rules when it comes to naming my characters: if a name grabs my interest, I’ll look for a way to use it somewhere. If I like the name, the character will be a “good guy”. I use names I don’t like when I’m hunting up monikers for villains or bullies and their ilk. But I’ve written so many stories (and rewritten most of them across the years) that finding new and interesting names gets more and more difficult. Enter the Baby Name Bible!

I mentioned that I’ve rewritten most of my stuff since I first began writing. In all that time and in all the various permutations, I’ve renamed only two characters. I went through a period where I was using some very strange names and borrowing names from celebrities I admire, and later on decided it was in my best interests to change their names. But most of the time, once I’ve named a character, you might as well draw up the birth certificate. 🙂

ailsa gray Says:

July 16th, 2009 at 6:20 pm

Don’t you think that in real life, people do not always “live up to” their names, so it should be the same in fiction? Maybe a tomboy called Angelina, a delicate invalid named Jazz? I am feeling a bit irritated on the subject of names at the moment, having just received a contract of employment addressed to ALISHA Gray, when my name is quite clearly Ailsa. Over the years, I have been addressed as Elsa, Alison, Alicia, Hazel, Alisa, Elsie, Isla, and my 95 year old godmother has sent me a birthday card every October, addressed to AISLA, which is also how she continues to pronounce it!

Sorry, I have wandered off the point. Just found this blog and am so delighted to find all these other people who love names! Wonderful!

Pam Says:

July 16th, 2009 at 7:43 pm

Welcome ailsa, longtime correspondent and friend! So good to have you on nameberry

Andrea Says:

July 16th, 2009 at 8:20 pm

If you’re naming a character born during the late 1950s, Billie is an authentic enough name. It was ranked around 300 or 350 at that time and didn’t leave the top 1,000 until 1997. Wilhelmina was always much more rare. Wilma was ranked similarly to Billie in the 1950s if you wanted an ugly name that she had to use a nickname for. Willodeen (numerous spellings) was used as a name for girls in the Southern states around the turn of the century and I could definitely a girl being named after Grandma Willodeen and deciding she preferred Billie. I’ve run into quite a few women with those horrid combo names — Mardell was one I met today — who were born in the 1940s or 1950s. They sound a lot more authentically American to me.

I think Violetta is pretty far-fetched and sounds too much like a romance novel heroine, rather fake, unless you’re going for a girl from a very ethnic Italian family. Even then it would probably have been pretty old-fashioned at the time.

Barbara Says:

July 16th, 2009 at 8:50 pm

Why not name counter to type–go with your ultrafeminine–and then nickname for the real tag you’ll use in the novel? Violetta may be her birth name, but maybe everyone calls her Violent; maybe she’s Carolyn, but everyone calls her Caro (not exactly as overt as “Violent,” but different enough to call attention to being “off-type” for her given name). I’m not nuts about either of those, but I love nicknaming characters.

ailsa gray Says:

July 17th, 2009 at 5:28 pm

Thanks Pam! I am addicted now.

Mookie Says:

July 25th, 2009 at 12:51 am

Whenever I write stories and such (which never seem to get finished), I always become more involved if my characters have crazy names. I sort of became infatuated with the idea from Each Little Bird That Sings, a book with main character Comfort Snowberger, her older brother Tidings, her younger sister Merry, her female best friend Declaration, and Comfort’s little male cousin, Peach. At the moment, I’m writing up a list of crazy names, and I’ll choose the names as the story progresses. But I know my main character’s name!

Bill Bartmann Says:

September 2nd, 2009 at 12:49 am

This site rocks!

Nagem Yelhsa Says:

June 20th, 2011 at 1:08 pm

I, too, write novels that I never tend to finish. I remember just last year I was in Language Arts class, working on a piece that has been lost in time, and I couldn’t think of a name for the heroine’s love interest. My friend, who claims to be a writer, was suggesting names that I loved, but just weren’t right. Finally, I told her “This is so hard!”
“How could it possibly be hard,” my friend remarked, “Just pick any ole name! Who cares!?”
I can honestly say my heart broke in two. You can’t pick “any ole name” for a character! The name has to fit, has to flow. Otherwise, it gnaws at you until you’re either forced to change the entire story or toss it. For those who are curious, I finally chose the name Bryan, just to shut us both up.

Tori Says:

July 22nd, 2011 at 8:42 am

Hmm really interesting read. I dislike the idea of boys names for girls even in stories so this name in my eyes just wouldn’t be great however for your character it would stereotypically make sense. However I feel that you should use a feminine name maybe with a masculine nickname. Someone suggested Wilhemina? Billie would work!
Other suggestions:
Christabel – Chris
Christiana – Chris
Samantha – Sammy
Charlotte – Charlie
Josephine – Jo
Roberta – Bobbie
I personally like the idea of the name Angelica for this character. I think Angelica is tough yet feminine like this character should be (I feel) she’s spunky and has a lot of engery with the potential nickname of Angel – ‘daddy’s little angel’ – I think Angelica would be perfect.

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