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02 - What's in a name?

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

Oh, the vexation of naming things in picture books!

One of my critique group submitted a story with a character named Deidre. My instant rection was ‘that’s not the right name’, but then I stopped. Why wasn’t it the right name? why was Deidre, a perfectly nice Irish name, ‘wrong’?

Looking closer, part of the problem is the onomatopoeia of the name. It sounds dreary and dull (apologies to any Deidres out there). It’s also not a very common British name and sounds a bit old-fashioned, at least in England. Most people of a certain age would instantly think if Deirdre Barlow from Coronation Street (even if her name is spelled slightly differently).

But does any of this mean that the little girl in the story can’t be called Deidre? And, for that matter, does she have to be a girl? There’s nothing gender-specific in the story, so would the character be better as a boy? Or a penguin? I think Deidre would be a lovely name for a penguin.

And therein lies the challenge – all these decisions are so subjective. I seem to instinctively know the gender of my characters, but couldn’t for the life of me tell you why.

So how do we get the ‘right’ name for a character? When it comes to naming, I tend to take four factors into account:

  1. What’s popular. I work on the assumption that kids like to see their names in print, so I always look at the top 20 baby names from 6 years ago for inspiration. Sometimes, these names don’t suit the character of my, erm, character, so I look at:

  2. Onomatopoeia. A lively, rebellious character might be called Jack or Kat; a more gentle character might be Noah or Chloe. This, of course, can be influenced by:

  3. Alliteration/story factors. Sometimes, a name is forced on you. I needed a character whose name began with D, so he became Doug. Clearly, ‘Simon’s Siren’ wouldn’t work if the main character were called Ollie.

  4. Ethnicity. I tend to write stories that are ethnically neutral, but occasionally have to hit the web to find names that suit the ethnicity of a character.

I’m currently grappling with an altogether different problem; naming aliens. Given the complete ASCII character set (plus emojis), you would think it wouldn’t be too hard to come up with some alien names. However:

  • I want to match the character to the name to the planet, so there are a lot of variables at play. Would a floating alien called Claxit come from Oberon?

  • I want to use real planets, and there are surprisingly few planets with common names – no child wants to read about an alien from MOA-2007-BLG-192Lb.

  • I need forenames and surnames for three aliens, so that’s six completely new words I need to invent, which also need to be easy to read (how do you pronounce XXYQRK?)

  • I like puns and wordplay, so am always looking for opportunities to make a joke (can I have a small bear-like alien from Ursa Minor?) My main character is made of jelly, so I’ve been looking for a planet linked to wobbling in some way, otherwise known as making a rod for my own back.

As a result, I’m on my 4th round of revisions and still have only two aliens and one planet named.

Are you a writer having naming nightmares? Have you ever felt a character’s name never fitted? Let us know in the comments.

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