Usually, the names of my characters simply come to me, along with their physical characteristics. I always know how they look, because long before I have any idea of the plot, I visualize at least one scene with the main characters. It may be the first scene, or it may one that happens later in the book, but that initial image is what sets up the whole story. I know if my characters are tall or petite, or if it’s the hero, if he is very muscular and tall or merely average for a studly hero. I know their eye and hair color, and if their hair is wavy or straight. They appear in my mind as clear as a photograph.
Based on their physical characteristics and the character’s general personality, which I usually have a glimpse of from that initial scene, the character’s name will generally pop into head. When that doesn’t happen, it’s more of a challenge. Since I'm an impatient writer, who wants to immediately jump in and start writing, I don’t wait until I find the perfect name. I come up with a temporary name and use that until I find something better. As a result, the heroine in my current WIP has had three different names. Thank heavens for the “search and replace” feature!
To find potential names, a lot of authors use baby-name books or online sites. But for historical novels, that only works up to a point. When you need a name that fits a specific time and place, you have to do more intensive research. I often use The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook. When that fails me, I start delving into historical records. But finding a name that is historically accurate can involve other issues. A lot of traditional names from the more archaic eras are odd-sounding. Eneuawg and Goleuddydd are historical Welsh names, but I would probably never use them for a character. The same with the Saxon names Ulfcetel and Aelfgyth. Readers want to have some sense of how to pronounce the characters’ names. If you use too many unusual names, readers will get confused and become overwhelmed with keeping track of who is who. They might even stop reading altogether.
For my books set in contemporary times, it’s easier, although sometimes there are too many choices. Because of the time travel sub-plot, my modern heroine needed to have a name beginning with “M”. Obviously, there are dozens, if not hundreds of names that fit that criterion. It you narrow it down to names that are popular currently, it gets a bit easier. Then it’s a matter of finding one that sounds right, that intuitively fits that character.
I've written a couple of fantasy novels, and in them I used mostly made-up names. I combined real words from real languages for some names and for others, altered real but obscure names to create new ones. It's interesting how some sounds we associate with females and others with males. And how some names sound right for a hero and others are a better fit for a villain.
The process really can't be explained. We all tend to associate specific characteristics with certain names. Often our feelings about a name are based on someone we knew with that name. Or it may be the way the name sounds or some other connection. I remember when my son was trying to figure out a name for his new kitten. She is an unusual-looking cat, what I call a pastel tortoiseshell, with gray, gold and cream all swirled together. I wanted to name her Paisley, but my son immediately rejected the name. It seems he knew a girl in preschool named Paisley and he didn’t like her. For the record, he ended up naming the cat Trainwreck. A tough-sounding name that appealed to him, a guy in his late teens, and which the cat lived up to, becoming the terror of the local mouse, rabbit and, alas, bird population when she came to live with us when my son went off to college. (Trainwreck now lives happily with my son and his wife, who was his girlfriend when they first got the kitten, in their tiny house in San Diego.)
How you feel about a character’s name is hugely important. In the cases where I’ve struggled with a character’s name and/or used several different ones, I also tended to struggle with their personality and their role in the book. It’s almost as if the character doesn’t become clear to me and truly come alive until I find the right name for them. A character who has the “right” name from the beginning is usually easy to write. Their personality, motivation and conflicts are immediately clear to me.
But what if you find the perfect name for your character and then realize another character’s name starts with the same letter? In that case, I usually change the name of the character who is less important to the story. With two names starting with the same letter, it’s too easy for the reader to get confused. But finding a new name can be agonizing. Some characters, even secondary ones, are simply that name, and creatively, it’s difficult to find an alternative that feels right.
Maybe I’m the only author to whom character names matter so much. But I don’t think so. I was recently talking to a writer friend who was struggling, and part of the reason was because she kept getting the heroine’s name in her current WIP mixed up with the heroine’s name in the book she was editing. Until she got the right name clear in her mind, she had difficulty moving forward in the book.
The only thing harder than naming your characters is finding a pseudonym. But that’s an issue for another blog post!