FAQ: Naming Characters

January 21st, 2011 | paper and process

When you’re starting a new story how do you decide on what to name the characters?#

That is so complex, for me, as to be almost unanswerable. Weirdly overdeveloped instinct, if you like. Sounds. Character background. That which evokes. While trying not to end up with character names that’d make even Don McGregor throw up in his mouth. (Don McGregor’s a comics writer who did groundbreaking work in the 1970s, and also did some of the most overcooked captionwork and character naming ever.) I do sometimes overdo it.

For instance: I’m working on something right now where I think I’ve nailed the character name finally. Birch. Birch = wood = connotes a degree of strength and basic groundedness. But also birching = flagellation. Also, “John Birch Society,” skeevy and untrustworthy. And it’s a hard, sharp word. There’s a lot about the character that unpacks out of the name. I tend to look for a name, particularly with protagonists, that somehow strikes sparks off elements of the character.

Or not. You can easily reverse that out. Michael Jones, in DESOLATION JONES: as ordinary a name as you can get. Which — at least in my head — indicates that what happened to him could have happened to anyone, given the right chain of rotten luck. (And also, in my head, a good name for a confused detective, because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?)

(Yeah, I know. These things only have to happen in my head. The flow of notions and themes around a name only have to be visible to me, to give colour and direction to the writing.)


One Response to “FAQ: Naming Characters”

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