Choosing Character Names

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I’m winging my way to Australia today so apologies that I won’t be able to join in the discussion. I will, however, be trying to do a little writing on the way (although you all know how hard I find it to write ‘in public’!). I started a new project last week and have been enjoying coming up with my new characters’ names – something I always have a lot of fun with and yet also suffer way too much angst over…

A character’s name can be critical to establishing the voice and feel of that person in the world that I am creating, and I often spend a considerable amount of time tinkering with main character names until they feel and fit the character exactly right.

Since I mainly write historical novels, I have a number of resources at my disposal to help me come up with names. These include lists of popular boys and girls names for  the time period I’m writing about as well as handy British last name resources like census data, historical records, newspapers, magazines and even Debrett’s (I often write about aristocrats, after all!). I’m like a sponge at first, soaking in all the details about names and then I play around with combinations until I find the right fit. Since I’ve also been writing with a renewed sense of appreciation for the humor in certain names, I have also been rereading Charles Dickens. He is, in my opinion, one of the cleverest ‘namers’ in literature (who can forget names like Uriah Heep, Ebenezer Scrooge or Mr. Pumblechook!). I recently discovered the often hilarious Dickens name generator and have spent many an hour or two concocting my own ‘Dickensian’ type names. 

So how do you come up with your character names? What resources do you use and how much time and effort do you spend? Is it something you agonize over, trying to make sure the name ‘fits’ the character or do you find the names just come to you and slide on your characters as easily as a silk glove? Apart from Dickens, who do you think has come up with some of the greatest, most memorable character names? 

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