Monday, September 26, 2011


A question I am frequently asked is: "How do you name your characters?" A better, perhaps more accurate, way of putting it though, is: "How do you find your characters' names?"

There is a difference: naming your characters has a subtle overtone of author as god/parent, naming his/her creations. Imposing it on them. Finding your characters' names, though, implies author as explorer, uncovering, discovering his/her characters' names. Which is part of discovering, uncovering the character.

Sometimes it's easy. Your character arrives with a name that somehow cannot be changed. You may also have a clear sense of who your character is, the ins and outs, the earthy, fleshy, obvious and subtle details that make her/him unique. But sometimes you have a name that is absolutely right and yet only a shadowy sense of that character -- in which case the name can be a gateway through which you come to discover your character.

Scully, in my picture book, A Screaming Kind of Day, arrived full-blown with that name. As I re-worked the story I questioned that name, thinking it wasn't really much of a girl's name. I tried to change it, but I couldn't because Scully was her name. That kind of clarity is a gift -- no, no, I don't mean a gift I have, but rather a gift that is visited upon writers at times.

When I'm not lucky enough to have a character's name arrive with such clarity and immediacy, I hunt for it in other ways. A great way is to have at hand a good baby name book. I have an old one from when my kids were born. It has a host of names from a number of cultural backgrounds along with their meanings.

That's how I found the name Calantha, for the main character in my fantasy novel, The Sower of Tales. I compiled a list of possible names, tried them out aloud, pondered their meanings, and this one fit best. Although Calantha means "beautiful blossom" and my Calantha is not beautiful -- oh no, she is dusty, bumbling and plain -- the name fit her. Maybe because the novel is about a world where story pods exist, and so the flower-like connection fits. There's a lovely synergy that happens when you've located your main character's name. Although I hadn't consciously selected this name for its Greek roots, I found myself selecting other names that fit this world, and they all seemed to be of Greek origin too. Even the names I completely invented -- my favourite being Xenyss, the inept Seer in Calantha's village, and one of my favourite characters -- sound Greek.

I found Dilly by searching through the internet for Punjabi names. I had a good sense of who she was, my main character in The Trouble With Dilly  -- wildly imaginative, scatty, impulsive and erratic -- but I didn't know her name. I knew though, that her name would be a diminutive of a longer one, and so I wrote down a list of ones that I thought might fit. Dilbaagh seemed right, as it would clearly be shortened to Dilly. And Dilly was perfect for my character. At a school reading, when I asked what kind of person Dilly might be from the sound of her name, a boy replied, "Tangy." Dilly is just that -- tangy!

Finding Red's name in That Boy Red, was more of a challenge. The book is a middle-grade novel inspired by my father-in law, John's, anecdotes of growing up on a P.E.I. farm during the Depression. I knew I needed to write this as a work of fiction (see previous blogs for the whys and wherefores) so I had to find a name that fit my invented character. It was a slow, circuitous process, discovering my character; he needed to be fictional and not John, so I could be free to weave stories in and around him -- or perhaps let him show me his stories? I made a list of Scottish names and tried several. It wasn't until well after I decided on Red because it fit my imagined character (his real name is Roderick) that someone pointed out how apt it was for a fictional character inspired by my father-in-law -- because John had had red hair in his younger days. Red, now, his hair is brown --durrty bruhn, as Cat-less Granny, Red's grandmother, would say -- but still, that name fits him.

More tips on how to unearth your characters' names in my next blogpost on October 8th.

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