How do you choose a character name?

However tempting it is to think that you can name the characters in your novel after those who’ve crossed you in real life, doing so could land you in serious trouble – as one writer has been discovering.

I’ve been following how Sarah Goldfinger, a scriptwriter on the TV show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, fell out with two estate agents over a housing deal, then allegedly used their surname for a pair of villains on the show.

Needless to say they weren’t happy about it. According to this story in The Independent, they’re filing a £3.75m lawsuit at LA County Superior Court.

There is of course a rich tradition of drawing on those you know for the characters of your script or novel. When fully realised, this tradition employs what Brandi Reissenweber in Writing Fiction (edited by Alexander Steele) refers to as “creative invention” – that is, you don’t stick rigidly to fact, but fictionalise people and transform them into characters that suit the needs of your story.

This sort of imagining isn’t motivated by pettiness, that creeping enemy of creativity, and it’s a million miles from painting a black picture and putting real names to it.

So when you write, how do you choose names for your characters? Do you pluck names from the phonebook, or do you prefer to have a secondary purpose in mind, use a homage, or find a placeholder name?

You might even have accidentally named your character after something else entirely, like a Japanese table with a heater under it.

Claire Fogg

(Publisher for the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook)

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5 Comments

Filed under Writing Advice

5 responses to “How do you choose a character name?

  1. When I worked in the bookshop, a lot of aspiring authors bought baby name books – excellent place to find names!

  2. Characters’ names are very important not just to the reader, but also the writer. How you relate to them and feel about them can be totally changed if you change their name, or the spelling of their name. I find this really useful if I’ve got bogged down by a character in a rewrite. If I’m stuck in a rut with them, I change what I’ve called them and they are reborn!

  3. Ed

    Though I imagine most people would find it exciting to recognise themselves in a work of ‘fiction’, it’s probably true that the real-life situations a writer chooses to embellish for a book will be the juiciest, most indecent episodes they have at their disposal! It might follow then, that if you were to see similarities between a character or plotline and your own experiences, the chances are you’d find it embarrassing at best. So whether a writer pins fictional names onto factual events or vice-versa, in the litigious world of showbiz, it seems too little discretion can be rather costly.

  4. oh and try and use different letters of the alphabet. Is it only me that finds it confusing when you are reading about a Fred, Frank, Freya, and Francis?

  5. Shankut Somaiya

    That is correct, the character’s names are important to the reader and the writer. More from the point of writer, he gives the birth of that character so he has the responsibility to name his creation.

    So why not set a birth date, time of birth and the place, then use these criteria and work out a birth chart and that will give the first alphabet of the character’s name and it also spells out under which star he/she is born, then use that chart and build your character and the name.