Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Your Characters and Their Names

This will be the third Wednesday in a row in which I harp on characters and how to deal with them. Why? Because I have yet another problem with my characters. And this time I have no one to blame but myself.

After working on my story for nearly three years, I have yet to decide on the names of the characters. Yep. You heard me right. Of the 20 or so named characters in the story, I’ve only chosen names for five of them. And of those five, one has since been dropped from the story and another has a name I’m already itching to change. I don’t know if this is a matter of me being lazy or just overly anal-retentive.

The truth is, I’m being very particular about these names because Rowling was very particular about her character’s names. And since I’m patterning my story after her books, this kind of detail is important to me. Rowling often chose names that had some sort of special significance to the story or hinted at a character’s traits, usually deriving them from the Greek or Latin forms. And while I’ve had fun working up lists of possible names based on their alchemical significance (another little quirk of Rowling’s), I have yet to assign any of these names to my characters. I really need to sit down some night with a glass of wine (or something stronger) and make some decisions, but I just keep putting it off.

All this means I’m having to get by with placeholder names, which does have its advantages. For instance, I often use my friends’ names for the characters I like and the names of people I don’t like for the villains. I’ve found it’s much easier to write scenes loaded with conflict when I have a more personal connection. Since my story takes place at Hogwarts, I also need names for all the instructors, so I either name them using their field of study (Professor Herbologist) or their main trait (Professor Worrier). In a few cases I use the same names Rowling used, so my Potions instructor has gone by the name of Snape for a couple of years now.

But I’ve discovered a hidden danger with this method. You can’t let the placeholder name influence the character’s actions. You don’t want your character to behave like the friend whose name you’ve temporarily bestowed upon them. For example, I’ve called my potions master Snape for so long that it’s hard not to think of Alan Rickman (the actor who played Snape in the movies) whenever I play out a scene in my head. My potions master and Snape are similar in some ways, but very different in others, and I’ve had to periodically yell at my character for acting too much like Snape. (Heh. It’s fun to get mad at your characters, isn’t it? That is, as long as your family doesn’t overhear the arguments. L)

So how do you decide on your characters’ names? Do you ever use the name of someone you know?


  1. I wondered why you chose such similar sounding first and last names for your mc. I chose some minor characters' names by their namesakes' traits, but my major characters' names all came from their root meaning. You may not see that until the 3rd book unless you look them up. So why don't you send me the list of choices when you send the chapter with the character in it? Either that or send the whole bunch now with a sentence of two about their roles. I'm surprised you didn't use any of the next generation Weasley kids as instructors with Hermione's brains. Or as a competitor for headmaster.

  2. I made a decision early on not to use any of the characters (or their kids) from Rowling's books. It didn't seem right for me to touch any of her characters, although I do mention Dumbledore once.