Character names

Meme question #3

3. How do you come up with names, for characters (and for places if you’re writing about fictional places)?

I have about as much luck with names for characters as I do with titles.  I’m concerned to get them exactly right for the character, and that often means giving the character an almost right name to start with and then trying out two or three more as I go along until one finally fits.  And of course I have to go through that with first names and surnames separately.  Names convey a lot of personality to a character all by themselves, although I’ve recently learned that the associations that a name carries don’t seem to be the same in the UK and the USA.

For example, poor old Tony St.John-Goodchilde from Shining in the Sun.  Tony is a relatively posh name in the UK, short for Anthony, and hopefully conveying a sort of Oxbridge, Eton educated, old boy’s network kind of person who is (because he uses the diminutive) making an attempt to sound like he’s not standoffish or up himself.  He’s trying to be just one of the guys but, with that surname, he will never manage it.  So the attempt itself is foolish and goodhearted and silly, but in a nice way.

Then I discover that none of that information comes across in the States, where Tony sounds like a blue collar worker of Italian heritage.  Argh!  Since that’s exactly the wrong thing for Tony, he has to become something else.  So he went through three or four changes of name before settling on Alec.

It’s difficult writing for a market where you don’t know the kind of information you are getting across simply from the feel of a word, and naming is one of those things which is wildly different on different sides of the Atlantic.  I never managed to read The Princess Bride because having a hero called Westley and a heroine called Buttercup  was so painful that I couldn’t bear to go on.

As to where I get them from, I have a copy of Erastes’ amazing spreadsheet of Regency names (which is how I knew I could get away with calling Garnet Garnet.)  There’s a great website of names of casualties of the Peninsula War which is a good guide for historical names.  I have a baby name book, and various baby name websites marked.  And there’s the telephone directory for surnames.

Place names in England are easy to make up for me, after I spent a year reading through the entire EPNS (English Place Name Survey) .  There are a number of Old English common suffixes and prefixes ( -cot, -ton, -ham, -ing, -stead.  Cald-, Long-, [Personal name]-, [object]- etc) which can be combined in lots of ways to get authentic sounding place names which all mean things.  For example, our house is called Andingham – which means “the homestead of the people of Andy.”

LOL!  Yes, naming is a subject about which I’m ever so slightly obsessed 🙂

List of meme questions.

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