What’s in a name?

What’s in a name?
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Coming up with character names, especially minor character names, can be challenging. Long after protagonists’ names have been established, an unexpected change in the plot can result in having to name another character when all you want to do is write and instead, it breaks the flow of writing.

Then I get distracted by the origins of names and that’s another half hour gone.

Recently, I’ve been doing a fair amount of family genealogy research and of course, the most important bit of information to know about a relative is their name, usually found in a paper trail left behind. My rellies were generally ‘from’ or ‘van’ somewhere, which gives additional clues and also makes their birthplace easier to find and research. Useful for genealogy research – not for naming characters and getting on with it.

So, what makes naming characters as important? One reason could be that in real life it may just be the most essential bit of information to know about someone. Like most people, I find myself resisting the urge of an eye roll when someone who happens to have known you for years, calls you by someone else’s name, just because you have the same hair colour, or your names end in the same ‘a’ sound or you happen to be friends. It happens quite a bit.

At the risk of a song being stuck in your head for the rest of the day, this really reminds me of The Ting Things’s song – That’s not my name.


One of the reasons I think names get mixed up, is that our brains like to group things to make sense of it. This could be by things like similarity, proximity, continuity or closure [Gestalt theory], which makes it even more crucial to give characters names that won’t be confused with that of others, to avoid the ‘who is that again?’ moment for readers, myself included.

So how do you choose a name for a character you didn’t anticipate? All I know is it’s best to keep the shortlist short, otherwise the time it takes to make a decision increases. [Hick’s law]

I told you I get distracted.

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