What’s in a character's name?

24 May 2015 / Leave a Comment

Last night I went to a local theatre production of a new work of dance, comedy, drama and physical theatre. I’m acquainted with the writer/director and the lead actress through the local community. I’ve seen one of their other performances and really enjoyed it. Anyway, I’m sitting there with a friend of mine, enjoying the beginning of the performance, when three minutes in the main character refers to herself as ‘Rowena’. It made me a little flushed around the neck. Rowena, that’s my name. It's not all that common. That’s okay. I guess they have to call her something. Why not Rowena? I give names to my characters all the time: Luisa, Sylvie, Ivy, so what? I knew a Luisa once, it didn’t mean anything at all to me to name my character Luisa.


But then, ten minutes in, 'Rowena' yells at her boy ‘Zac’. That’s my son’s name! They know that’s my son’s name! Now it’s uncanny and awkward for me. One name was enough, but the two of us? I slumped further down in my seat, wondering if anyone else in the audience had picked up on the naming coincidence.


The story itself had nothing to do with me, nor could it, because they don’t know me, really. But it was a strange experience having my name and my son’s name thrown across the stage.


Maybe they liked the names? When writing fiction, I often pick names that I like. Sometimes those names were on my list of possible baby names, but I never got to use them. In two of my stories the love interest is called Jarvis just because I love the name so much. And even though it’s kind of stupid to have two main male characters in two different books with the same name, I can’t seem to change either of them. They are Jarvis. There is no other name in the world for either one of them.


Sometimes I can’t think of names at all for my characters, so I go to Google and type in ‘naughty boy names’: Joseph, Jamie, Lewis, Benjamin, or ‘Popular girl names 1970’: Jennifer, Lisa, Angela, Amy, sometimes the character goes through five different names until I settle on one that I like, sometimes they remain as xxx until the third draft. 


Recently I realised that I'd used a colleague's daughter and son's names as names for some minor characters in a book. I'd picked very common names - Sarah and Chris - and when I realised what I'd done accidentally, I changed one of them, to avoid any future puzzlement.


My all time favourite character names are Ignatius Reilly, Holden Caulfield and Veruca Salt - what brilliant, defining names. If only I could come up with such sharp names. But then again, I often forget to give my characters a surname, as one editor once pointed out to me ‘readers like to know a character's surname, it makes them seem real.’ Huh. Something for me to work on. But in the meantime, I’m just glad they didn’t use my surname in the show last night as well …
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