What’s in a name?

namegenQuite a bit, actually, when it comes to characters. I find naming my characters a really important stage in their development. Without the right name they’re just shapes on the page, faceless and lacking in personality. But the right moniker helps define their age, their background, their social status – and suddenly they’re real people. But the process isn’t always as easy as you might think.

Take barmaid Sandra in ‘Gravy Train’, for instance. She actually started out life with a different name, and it seemed to be working okay. But then I had a disagreement with a friend who just happened to have that name and although it was pure coincidence, I didn’t want the friend to think I was trying to get my own back. So I changed the name to something fairly similar, and Sandra was born. And in the end, she’s worked better as Sandra than she ever would with her previous name, so I’m really happy I made the change.

Now I’m having a similar problem with one of the characters in my current work in progress, ‘Embers of Bridges’. I first wrote the book years ago, but it’s been languishing on a shelf or stuck in an endless loop of rewrites ever since, and it’s only recently that I’ve gone back to it in a serious way. When I first wrote it, the two miscreants who form the basis of the story were called Mickey and George, and I’ve stayed with those names even though pretty much everything around them has changed. But now ‘Gravy Train’ is being published, and there’s a fairly important character called George in that. And if I’m lucky enough to get ‘Embers’ published too, it could lead to confusion. Is it the same character? But how come he’s younger? Does that mean the book’s set longer ago? Readers don’t need to waste their valuable time on that sort of bafflement, so George will have to mutate into something else.

The problem is that where Sandra had only existed in her other form for a matter of weeks, in George’s case he’s had that name for years. I’m so used to him as George that it’s hard to think of him as anything else. I have now come up with an alternative that I think will work just as well – but I’m having trouble convincing my own brain to make the change. Whenever I start to write him as Carl, I find he’s reverted to George within a page or two, or sometimes only a paragraph or two. I think I’m going to have to write the whole book with him as George, and only go back and flip him to Carl in ‘search and replace’ once it’s done.

It’s lucky that modern technology makes this relatively straightforward, but I’m wondering if other writers have a similar problem – and whether you’ve found any easy ways of getting around it…


4 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    I’ve changed character names, too, and ‘Search/Replace’ really is the easiest way to do it, or so it has been for me. I also once had a case where one of my characters’ names was extremely similar to the name of my sleuth’s wife. Too confusing! So I had to cut the sleuth’s wife out of the novel (pity, since I like her), and just mention her in passing (e.g. ‘His wife was at a dinner with her Women in Business group…’).

  2. Because I write mostly fantasy, I can come up with weird and wonderful names from a variety of origins. However, I still have to make sure I don’t re-use a name, or something so similar it might cause confusion. And I try hard not to have major characters in one book with names beginning with the same letter – I think, from my own reading experience, that it’s all too easy for the fast reader to get confused when they interact. So no George and Geoff…(or the fantasy equivalent). If I make a mistake on first writing – and I’m sure we’ve all done that, I too continue and then use ‘find and replace’. After all, once the book has left my hands it isn’t really going to worry me… I maintain a glossary to refer to and that helps me avoid a mess. I also re-check once I’ve replaced names because it’s all too easy for a short name to get replaced when it’s inadvertently part of a longer ordinary word… George is unlikely to appear unless you also have a pub called The George and Dragon, but it’s surprising how many words contain syllables such as Ben…

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