Naming Characters – Wednesday Writing Spot

For this week’s Wednesday Writing Spot – sorry there hasn’t been one for a while – I would like to welcome my good friend and fellow author, Kath McGurl, who many of you will know from her fabulous Womag blog. She is talking about naming characters – something we all need to do – and how she went about it for her new novel, The Emerald Comb. Fascinating stuff. Over to you, Kath 🙂

‘Character names are so important. They have to be right for the period you’re writing about and right for the character. And personally, I find I can’t get to know my characters properly until I have found the best name for them.

So how do writers decide on names? For first names, some writers use baby name books, or websites which show the most popular names in given years. A good tip for historical writers is to consider the names of the royal family of the period you’re writing about. You can bet that after King George III and Queen Caroline named one of their daughters Augusta, that there were plenty of other little Augustas born in the following few years.

Surnames can be more tricky. You could flick through the phone directory for inspiration. Or, as my favourite writing spot is beside my bookcases, do what I do – browse the names of authors on book spines and pick one of those.

In my book The Emerald Comb, Katie researches her family tree. I needed her ancestors to have an unusual surname that she would easily be able to trace, and I picked ‘St Clair’. Katie was born Catherine St Clair – a name which I think has a nice ring to it. She married, and became in her own words, plain old Katie Smith. Her husband Simon is not at all interested in his family background, so I gave him the genealogist’s nightmare surname: Smith.

One of the main characters in the historical strand of the story is Bartholomew St Clair. I have no idea where the name Bartholomew came from, but I know that I woke up one morning thinking with that name in my head and I knew it was right for him.

Another thing to consider when naming characters is whether their name suits their personality. For Georgia Holland I needed a soft, rounded, pretty name. Whereas for Agnes Cutter I wanted something sharper, spikier.

A writer may want to give the reader an impression of their character just from the name. Charles Dickens was a master at this – the teacher Mr Gradgrind, the miser Ebenezer Scrooge, the conceited Mr Pumblechook, kind and jolly Polly Toodle. These names all fit the characters so well that hardly any description is necessary. The Emerald Comb contains a minor character named Mrs Oliphant, and I hope the reader pictures her as a rather large lady, just from her name.

When my children were born, in each case I had names ready for them as soon as they arrived. I hated to think they’d be in the world for even a single hour without a name. I feel the same about my characters. I can’t begin writing until I know what they’re called, and once named, I never change them. It’s part of their identity, and the main theme of The Emerald Comb is identity. So the names must be right from the start.

What’s the most memorable character name you’ve come across in fiction?’

Many thanks, Kath, and congratulations on the publication of The Emerald Comb. Please do check out Kath’s website and her new novel. Isn’t it a fabulous cover.


Twitter: @KathMcGurl


The Emerald Comb:


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9 Responses to Naming Characters – Wednesday Writing Spot

  1. Patsy says:

    I can’t write much detail about a character without knowing their name.

    Park benches are good – those little brass squares dedicating them to someone, I mean. Usually there’s just enough info to beging building a character.

  2. Thanks Della for hosting me here today!

  3. Kaz Clark says:

    I agree with Cath, need those names in place first. I like them to be a little unusual too. x

  4. Karen says:

    I love thinking of names and, like others, can’t write until I’ve got them. Though I once came up with Paige Turner, which had to change for obvious reasons, and another time thought of a perfect character first name, only to realise I’d used it in a previous novel!

  5. Sue Blackburn says:

    Oh Karen – Paige Turner – that’s hilarious! Names are so important aren’t they – without the right one the character is all wrong. Dickens was a genius in every way wasn’t he.

    Great interview with Kath. Thank you both. Got the Emerald Comb and am hooked already 🙂 xx

  6. Nicola says:

    I (apparently) made a huge name mistake in one of my stories. I love the name Edith and consequently called one of detectives by that name. However, the story got nowhere. Edith kept popping back into my rejection tray. My daughter then read it (she is my most ‘honest’ critique) and told me ‘YUK!’ MUM!!! You can’t call your character Edith. No wonder it keeps coming back. The story is great but Edith is the nasty character from Downton Abby. It won’t work. Re-name her now! Well, I don’t watch Downton Abby so didn’t know. I have now re-named by poor Edith and re-jigged the story slightly. It’s not the same in my head but let’s hope my daughter is right and that Edith is the jinx. Happy writing everyone. x

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