Choosing character’s names

choosing character's names in a novel

My character’s names often change as a novel develops. Sometimes the original name just doesn’t seem to suit the way the character or their backstory develops.

There’s a theory called nominative determinism which speculates that your given name might define what you do in life. I don’t subscribe to that theory, but names do need to fit the characters.

I used the name Marcus in a novel recently, but you have to resolve the possessive suffix, either Marcus’ or Marcus’s. I would instinctively go for the former, but apparently this is a contentious point. I resolved it by changing his name to Martin.

Has anyone else experienced this problem?

For my current novel in progress all the characters have been given names from the Old Testament – no idea why, but it appears to be working and it feels ‘right’ for the story – for me at least.

They are Ethan, Abby (Abigail), Hannah, Isaac, Martha, Beth (Bethany), Daniel, Simon, Peter and Mary.

In my head there’s a connection between my novel, set 100 years in the future, and names from over 2000 years ago.

Does anyone have a better way of choosing character names?

How do you start a novel?

Book cover for White Lies and Black Sheep

I had heard from many different sources that there is a tendency to put a version of yourself front and centre of your first novel. I wanted to avoid this trap so decided to write from the perspective of a young woman. Writing is a form of escapism and jumping both gender and age was an interesting challenge.

The original concept
I started with the premise of a girl thinking she might be responsible for someone’s death. In law she might be guilty of manslaughter if not murder. Of course she isn’t, but doesn’t know the full details of that fateful night.

So she had to have some terrible grudge against him to make her feel guilty of wanting him dead, or at the very least punished. She would have to move away from the scene of the crime, create a new life and then return later to discover the truth. 

I planned for her to fall pregnant, but not want to reveal the father because it could have been one of two people. One being her boyfriend, the other his father who raped her when she was drunk after a party.

I also wanted to write from the point of view of a woman aged eighteen and her return, at the age of thirty-six, to the village where she grew up. 

And I wrote all this before the #metoo hashtag came into prominence.

White Lies and Black Sheep probably falls into the genre of ‘commercial women’s fiction’, not chic lit as it covers too many serious topics in an otherwise light novel. I still like the story structure and the characters, but it would be odd if I didn’t think my writing hadn’t evolved since my first novel.

Plots and storyboards

plot a novel on cards

My first novel was planned meticulously
I had no idea how ‘real’ authors developed their plots. Previously I had tried to write a novel with very little planning and my plot got confused, I got confused – even the characters in my novel got confused. So I set about working out everything beforehand.

Here is my nerdy, old-fashioned, personalised method of plotting.
You will need…
Hundreds of small bits of cardboard
Two coloured felt-tip markers
(blue edge on a card for a chapter head and date, red for a chapter summary)
A pen of your choice that doesn’t smudge easily
A roll of clear sellotape
A cup of tea (coffee is an acceptable alternative)
Patience

The advantages of this method (which I still use in a modified form)
You only need to know three or four things in your plot, scribble them on bits of card and put them on your table.

You don’t have to imagine a whole plot in one go. Once you’ve started you can move them around, add ideas, even push some to the side. Before you know it the story will grow in front of you. Sellotape them together before the wind blows them all over the floor (it happened to me once).

Don’t let it rule you
In my work process this is produced as a guide only. Once I start writing everything changes. But you can just cut up your bits of card and replace them with new strands and characters as they appear. You can see my scribbled character spider in the top left of the picture.

Software options
There are software programs that emulate this method and probably give you more options, but…
1) I don’t have a computer screen as big as my table.
2) Getting away from the screen can liberate your imagination – it’s a touchy-feely method.