Tuesday, March 6, 2012

It's Just a Name… Right?

I’ve always been a tiny bit obsessed with names. When I was a kid – way before I realised I wanted to be a writer – I used to write made-up names in disguised handwriting in the fronts of my books, hoping I’d stumble across them in the future and think the book had actually belonged to someone else.

But names are just… names, aren't they? They don’t actually matter. Or do they?

Well, yes.

Working out my main character’s names is one of the very first things I do when I’m beginning to plan a new story. I might have a vague idea for a plot, but it’s just that – vague. It’s not until I get my names that everything jumps into focus. And those names have to come along and find me; it’s never the other way round.

The main character in ACID is called Jenna Strong. You might think the surname was deliberate, because she’s a kick-ass character trying to survive in incredibly tough conditions, but honestly? It wasn’t. Jenna’s name arrived in my head out of nowhere, before I knew anything but the sketchiest of details about her or her situation, but I knew it was right because… well, I just knew. There’s a brilliant blog post/essay here from Laini Taylor on her Not for Robots blog, where she talks about ‘the snick’ - the sound and feel of a puzzle piece fitting into place. That’s what it feels like when I have the right name - it just fits, without me even having to think about it.

Once I have a name, I have a character. This might sound strange, but for me, Jenna’s name dictates everything about her – from her the way she looks to the way she . If she’d been called, say, Jenna Anderson, she’d have been a very different girl indeed. I know I don’t have the right name if I have to start looking names up in the phonebook or a name dictionary, or if my character starts behaving in a way that just isn’t them. This is a problem I had with the protagonist of my WIP, now fixed, thankfully.

Secondary characters’ names aren’t so important. They tend to come to me as I write and are much more interchangeable, especially as I often end up with a bunch of similar-sounding names that I have to alter in later drafts so as not to confuse the reader.

But for my main characters, I have to get that ‘snick’ for them to be able to exist at-all. So what’s in a name? Pretty much the whole book, as it happens.

How about you? How do you come up with your characters’ names? And how do they affect your story? 

Emma Pass grew up at an environmental studies centre near London, went to art school in Cornwall and now lives in the north-east midlands with her artist husband, where she has a day job at her local library. She's also minion to The Hound, a retired racing greyhound with whom she appears to have signed a contract in her own blood agreeing to attend to his every need – even if those needs include getting up at 3am to remake his bed because he's scratched it up so much he can't get back in it. 

Emma is represented by Carolyn Whitaker at London Independent Books and her YA dystopian thriller ACID is out from Random House Children's Books in early 2013. You can find her blog here, and catch her procrastinating on Twitter here.


  1. I so agree - you have to live with these people for so long that the names must work. If not it's like spending the day with someone who doesn't like your house, or your cooking, or your clothes ... you just have to send them back where they came from till they come back with the right name!

  2. Thanks, Jo! And you're so right - that's exactly how it is.

  3. Names are so important because they provide images and feelings in my head. For example, I could never name a hero "Tim." Too many bad memories/images. But, you're right. Once you find the right name, it's like finding the right porridge. It's just right. :)

  4. I love that analogy, Liz! So true. :)

  5. "This might sound strange, but for me, Jenna’s name dictates everything about her."

    I feel the same way about my main characters' name in my 2013 debut. She and her name showed up pretty much simultaneously in my head, and I can't imagine calling her anything else.

    A great post, Emma. I can't wait to learn about all your ACID characters.

    1. Thanks, Cat! It's funny how one name just seems to fit, isn't it? I'm looking forward to learning about all your characters, too.

  6. Great post. I can't imagine my main character having any other name than the one she has. It just wouldn't work. Although I also find that certain supporting characters need to have the perfect name as well, to immediately conjure up an aspect of their personality so I can keep them straight in my head :)

    1. Thank you, Sarah! I'm amazed at how many people feel the same way. Nice to know I'm not alone! :)