Choosing a character’s name should be a fun part of writing a novel. Whether you have a name you’ve always wanted to use, perhaps even created a story specific to it, or relied on random selection, the book will always be known in your head as ‘so and so’s’ story. The Women of Heachley Hall is Miriam’s book, Beyond the Yew Tree is Laura’s. In The Last Thing She Said, which features three women, I considered Naomi’s tale because she started and ended the story, but it’s just as much Leia’s and Rebecca’s.
I’m currently writing crime novels, and this time the protagonist’s name was established long before the plot solidified. Julianna, and she’s not budging from that name. I have pondered more on her surname, which I changed to reflect her family background, but it features little in the books. First names are heavily used in novels, and there are two things that I always consider before picking one. How easy is it to type? Yes, that’s a fundamental thing for a touch typist. If the combination of characters triggers typos, then why use it? Secondly, if I did change my mind and want to use a different name, how simple is it to use find and replace. I’ve read of author’s troubles when they discover part of the name is intrinsic to other words. For example: Jan, Em, Rich, Will, May, June; all of these words are ambiguously used in text.
When it comes to minor characters, I often play around with random name generators. There are plenty about, and some are incorporated into writing tools. It becomes a great time waster when you’ve run out of steam with the writing. The temptation is to come up with something exotic, or weird combinations of letters, or gender bender names, ethnic mixes or totally made up names with no historical precedence. It’s fun, but dangerous. For at the end of the day, when a reader is immersed in a book, they skim over the letters, noting nothing more than the label of a dialogue tag or the substitution of a pronoun. Keep it simple, and you can’t go wrong.
There is one other dilemma. When writing in first person, how do you drop the name into the text? How many pages from the beginning of the book do you write before you realise there has been not one opportunity to introduce the name of your protagonist into the story? Hello, readers, I’m Ben, this is my character’s name, now keep reading. Of course, there is always the option of never actually giving your protagonist a full name. Think of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I always assumed Rebecca was the protagonist’s name, but no, she’s the first Mrs de Winter, and what we’re reading is the story of the second Mrs de Winter, who is called ‘my dear’ by her husband. Her first name is never revealed, and it adds to the mystery, the tension between husband and wife. Cleverly done.
I don’t think I could be that daring. I’ll stick to my name generators and try to come up with something likeable, and easy to type.