(Almost) hard and fast rules on how to choose a character’s name

by Caroline Anderson, author of the upcoming Harlequin Romance The Baby Swap Miracle (February 2011)

Choosing names is a nightmare.  So pivotal to the characters, and I can’t start without getting it right.  I like ‘normal’ names – names people recognise and can pronounce, but I have rules. Short, tight, strong, masculine names for heroes – but DO NOT use Ben/Sam/Nick/Rob to the exclusion of all others! I had a ‘no repeats’ rule at first, but after 85 books it’s got trickier. (Imagine having 170 children!) So I do repeat, but then so does life.

As for how, it’s easier since my daughters are late 20s, because I just look at their friends and think, yes, this fits with that generation. I find Scottish names creep in – Robert, of course, and Iona, also Isla. Contemplating this for current heroine. He might be Oliver, but then – oh, it’s so hard! I had a run of Elizabeth once – Lizzi, Beth, Libby – then had to stop myself! Heroines can have more unusual names than heroes. Emelia was my latest, but he was Sam. Again! (No guesses what I would have called my son had I had one!)

Surnames are tricky, too, but only for heroes. Again, masculine, crisp, interesting but not too unusual. I want my characters to be accessible to my readers, my heroes to be men they could imagine meeting in real life. That’s the point, isn’t it? The heroine could be you!

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Comments ( 4 )
  1. MarcieR
    November 2, 2010 at 8:15 am
    Reply

    I knew of an author who had the same character name several books apart – she didn’t know she had done it, but a reader reminded her. But like in life – some people do have the same name, but they aren’t the same person.

  2. PatriciaW
    November 2, 2010 at 9:11 am
    Reply

    I like names from when I was in grade school or high school, but I have to be careful not to date my characters by choosing names that are completely out of favor. The trick is that the names have to have been common when the character was born, not now, not twenty years before.

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    November 2, 2010 at 10:07 am
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  4. Robin Covington
    November 2, 2010 at 12:07 pm
    Reply

    I find that there are so many websites that collect data regarding names of different time periods – they are a great resource. My current WIP is set in VA and I picked names that were long-standing family names from the geographic area – being from the South – it is typical to hand down names from generation to generation. So, I looked at the old census records until I clicked with names from the Civil War era.

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