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Resources for Writers

Naming Characters by Jane Isaac

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Article by Jane Isaac ©.
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Names help to define an individual and form the basis of the many layers it takes to build them. In essence, a strong name makes the character real in our minds. And if they aren’t real to us, as the author, they won’t feel real to our readers.

So, what makes a memorable name? As always, there is an element of subjectivity to our perception. Our brains often link the words in our memory, relating them to someone we once knew. Whether or not we like the character can depend on our experience of the ‘real’ person with that name. Sometimes a name can fit like the perfect glove, and then, as the character develops in the story the glove gets loose, worn at the ends, and needs replacing.

Ten years ago, when I was writing my first novel, An Unfamiliar Murder, I spent much time mulling over the name for my lead character. I considered famous literary names, those that have stayed with me long after I finished the story:

‘Professor James Moriarty’ – Sherlock Holmes novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

‘Lincoln Rhyme’ – Jeffery Deaver’s crime protagonist.

‘Temple Gault’ – Patricia Cornwell’s Dr Kay Scarpetta series.

‘Heathcliff’ – Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights

‘Granny (Esme) Weatherwax’ – Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

An eclectic mix from a quick brainstorm. For me, what makes these names memorable is that they appear to suit the characters so well.

Choosing names, especially for lead characters isn’t easy. I always feel obliged to research them – to ensure that they aren’t linked with a major a court case or claimed by a famous actor or academic, all elements that might distract a reader.

It’s also useful to remember that names, like many other aspects of society, follow fashions. It’s unlikely we’d call a twenty-three-year-old estate agent in the UK Sharon or Michelle. But there were plenty of babies given these names in the late sixties and early seventies, so if they were fifty-three those names might seem more appropriate. I find an internet search of popular baby names chosen in the same year as my character is born, helps to place the era. Of course, there will always be exceptions – those named after famous people or members of the family or after someone close – and in those cases we can make reference to the reasons for the differences in our script. Parental choice might form the fabric of your story and help readers to identify with your character. It’s all about believability.

In the end, I opted for a combination of traditional and conventional for my lead, Detective Chief Inspector Helen Lavery. This was the start of a crime series; I needed a strong name with staying power for future books. With Helen I thought of Helen Keller, an inspirational historical figure, and Helen Mirren, one of my favourite actresses. Both strong, independent women with a passion that pushed them to go that extra mile. My Helen is a working mother, juggling the challenge of single parenting teenage sons with one of the most responsible and demanding jobs in the police force by managing the Homicide and Serious Incident Team. Occasionally adopting unorthodox methods to make a difference and keep us safe. Lavery was the name of an old friend and librarian who introduced me to my first mysteries in Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven, a cherished series of my early childhood.

This year marks the publication of the third book in the DCI Helen Lavery series, A Deathly Silence, which introduces a new character to the fore. We follow the police investigation through Helen’s eyes, and the rest of the story through another point of view in Blane O’Donnell. Blane is a former detective, currently deployed in unarmed tactics. He’s ambitious and cares deeply for his family. It took a long time and a lot of headaches to settle on the right name for his character, I can tell you!

There are some useful rules of thumb to consider when naming characters:

  1.  Be consistent – if you name a character James, don’t fluctuate between Jim and James unless you have good reason and, if so, make it clear to your readers why.
  2. Don’t give two main characters names starting with the same letter – it can confuse the reader.
  3. Try to avoid names that sound similar. I’ve noticed I have a penchant for names ending in ‘a’. I’ve had an Anna, an Eva, and a Carmela in my stories – luckily, they’ve all been in different books!
  4. Keep a note of all your characters as you go along to avoid using the same name twice. There are various different methods of doing this – I use a manual alphabetical index card system.

I’m now busy selecting names for my next project. I wish you lots of luck with yours!

(c) Jane Isaac

Jane Isaac’s new novel A DEATHLY SILENCE is published by Legend Press.

About A Deathly Silence:

When the mutilated body of a police officer is found in a derelict factory, Hamptonshire force are shocked to the core.

DCI Helen Lavery returns from injury leave and is immediately plunged into an investigation like no other. Is this a random attack or is someone targeting the force? Organised crime groups or a lone killer?

As the net draws in, Helen finds the truth lies closer than she could have imagined, and trusts no one.

But Helen is facing a twisted killer who will stop at nothing to ensure their secrets remain hidden. And time is running out…

Order your copy online here.


Jane Isaac studied creative writing with the Writers Bureau and the London School of Journalism. Jane’s short stories have appeared in several crime fiction anthologies. Her debut novel, An Unfamiliar Murder, was published in the US in 2012, and was followed by three novels with Legend Press: The Truth Will Out in 2014, Before It’s Too Late in 2015, and Beneath the Ashes in 2016. Jane lives in rural Northamptonshire with her husband, daughter and dog, Bollo. Visit Jane at janeisaac.co.uk or on Twitter @JaneIsaacAuthor