Thursday, January 5, 2012

How I Name Characters

I’m doing a lot of it these days. I’m well into my next book and it’s the first of a brand new series. Each character–major or minor, hero or butler–has to be named. So does every village, house, and street. It’s exhausting. I have a lot of ??? in the manuscript, indicating a name to be named later.

When I name a character, the first thing I consider is his/her parents. Who were they and what were they thinking come christening time? I try and come up with something period appropriate, but if I was being realistic the odds are most characters would be named John or George, Jane or Mary. So I branch out a bit and search for names that were in use during the period and are suitable for the character’s background. And of course the name must suit the character. The heroine of The Dangerous Viscount was originally named Marianne. But she just wasn’t a Marianne. Half way through the writing process I sat down with a yellow pad and wrote down names until I hit on Diana. Her younger sister had been Arabella, but I decided her father had a thing for goddesses and Arabella became Minerva.

If a name is unusual, I usually explain it in the book. The heroine of my first book, Never Resist Temptation, was named Jacobin. Her English mother named her for King James I, the founder of her family fortune. Her French father, a moderate revolutionary, appreciated the irony that she was named for the extreme party.

But I don’t believe I ever explained how Tarquin Compton, hero of The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton, got his name. The truth is, I’m not sure. I know how I settled on his surname (not an interesting story) but Tarquin? WTF? Tarquin has been with me for a long time. He was the hero’s best friend in my first book, a work of genius that will remain forever unpublished. When I jettisoned the book and the hero, I kept Tarquin. By the time I wrote his book he was so real to me I didn’t worry about his name. There was no way I would change it. I could say his father had a passion for Roman history, but it doesn’t seem right. Besides, the Roman Tarquin was a bit of a rapist (see picture above). What I now know about the older Mr. Compton is much more down to earth. Since hindsight is 20-20 I shall now disclose that his mother had a futuristic dream about Lawrence Olivier and decided to name her son after his son. No? Never mind.


  1. I name everyone as well. I have to keep a list of my character. Sometimes, I'll have a title, but no first or family name until part way through the book. On poor charater didn't have a first name until I started the re-write. My characters tend to introduce themselves. Or give me hints. But sometimes I change the name half way through the story.

  2. I not only name them but I give them a history ... it helps bring them to life for me when I begin writing their story. I even map out their family tree somewhat and then sometimes I still end up changing their names or past as the story grows. Each character really does have a life of his/her own. : )

  3. I've noticed in a lot of books I've read that the names Tarquin and Minerva are used a lot. Have you ever thought about using your name Miranda? I think that your name is lovely. I also like the names Richard and Peter, which I've noticed are rarely used in romance novels.

  4. @ella It's tough when you get those characters that refuse to be named, isn't it? Mind you, my daughter almost ended up as Baby Girl on her birth certificate because we couldn't settle on the name.

    @Amy That whole character back story is so vital. And of course we end up knowing far more about the characters than the readers ever learn.

    @Diane. Romance names go in and out of fashion and I'm convinced it's something in the air! I never read of a Tarquin before but now both Anna Campbell and Eloisa James have done one and there may be others. One year, I remember, every second hero was named Marcus.

    Minerva seems to be in vogue now. Tessa Dare and I both have Minervas coming out from the same publisher on the same day.

  5. Whenever a name is picked, either for a child or even a pet, I think you have to be in their presence to see what 'fits'.

  6. My characters tend to name themselves and appear with names and titles. The minor characters often do so, too, but not always. I have several ??? in my current WIP because I'm not sure of characters' first or last names.

  7. @Di- very true. You have to be careful with naming. As a child I had a cat called Cleopatra. He lived to be a ripe old age.

    @SusannahC. It's great when that happens. But sometimes characters prove recalcitrant.