What’s in a Name?

A question I’m often asked is ‘how do you choose names for your characters?’ This is a great question and is one of my biggest writing challenges because I think names are so important. I’ll give you an example…

I’m embarking on a new story and the laptop keys are rattling at great speed, the plot is rolling forward and my main characters are about to react when I suddenly need to introduce a new character. Bam! I can’t move forward until I have a name for this character. Maybe I should use the first one to pop into my head but no. That causes problems because I’ll need to change it further down the line and then I’ll probably forget and use both at different times. In Blood Loss I called DI Paton’s young neighbour Kirsten then in Here She Lies began calling the main character Kirstie. Oops! Far too similar and there was a chance they would be in the same book.  Once the name was in my head though, it was difficult to get it out. A near to final draft even slipped through with the wrong name in. 

I try to avoid even a first letter being the same (which can be tricky when there are only twenty-six to choose from) and I avoid names with the same sounds such as Laura and Paula. I dislike reading names I don’t know how to pronounce and those that conjure up the wrong image or personality.

A name tells the reader so much about a character before you even meet them properly. Let’s look at some examples and see what images these conjure for you…

Charles Montague

Mabel Grimstone


Chardonnay Jones

If my surname were Long I’m sure I wouldn’t have opted for a double-barrelled name with my husband Eric Wiwi and if my surname were McDonald I wouldn’t tie it to my husband’s Berger. And yes, these are real couples.

Even the animals’ names in my novels deserve great consideration to bring out their characters. Welly, the black cat, Morse the Bengal who’s covered in dots and dashes and likes investigating new places, Nutmeg, the golden retriever, and Merlin the black horse.  Whimsical names like Harry Trotter, Usain Colt, and Liam Neighson are pretty common in racehorses and my daughter recently discovered a horse for sale called Clipperty Clop.

I once spent a whole week thinking up a name for a chain of upmarket cafes for my novel Blood Loss and eventually decided upon Bramwells because, for me, it conjured an image of an upmarket café selling tasty, healthy food. I like to play around with names for businesses so I have the Scene of the Crime cleaning company, The One and Only care company and Check Mate – a background-checking agency for people who use dating websites.

A name can immediately place us in an age group – think Stan, Doris, Cuthbert, and June compared to Peter, Michael, Susan and Karen, or Noah, Aimee, Poppy and Alfie.  It can also give the reader an idea of a person’s ethnic and cultural background – think Mahmood, Angelika, José and Barbara.

When I wrote assignments for my social work degree I used silly names but didn’t put them together to see if my tutor spotted them. She did after the first couple then looked for them so I put far too much effort into thinking up new ones instead of focusing on the content of the essays. Examples were – Dwayne Pipe, Robin Banks, Chris P Bacon, I P Knightly and so forth. Childish really!

My mum chose Kerena from a romantic novel years before I was born but was too ill to make it to the registry office. Unfortunately, she hadn’t told my dad how to spell it so my birth certificate says Cerina. I consider Kerena my real name – in fact, I somehow managed to get that onto my passport from the age of 10 – but my dad thereafter called me Kerry. I’m known as Kerry to friends and family and I save Kerena for my writing and formal uses. I’m pleased to be the only Kerena Swan in the UK although both Kerry and Kerena aren’t great when it comes to defining my Star Wars name. According to a radio chat show I heard; you take the last three letters of your surname then the first three letters of your first name. Work it out. I almost rang in!

Kerena Swan

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