Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Naming your Secondary Characters

Paula thinks about the names for her supporting and minor characters.

Most writers take care when naming their two main characters, and we all have our own methods, whether that involves studying lists of baby names popular in the decade our characters were born or choosing names with ‘significant’ meanings. I don’t actually have much difficulty choosing my heroes’ and heroines’ names. As soon as I start thinking about a story, their names seem to appear out of nowhere.

I’ve discovered that choosing the names of my secondary characters often leads to more brain-searching than the main ones. This was definitely the case when I was writing my novel set in Egypt. I wished I’d written down all the names of the crew members on our cruise ship, or the staff at our Luxor hotel. Lists of Egyptian baby names produced names of ancient gods and goddesses, as well as more modern names. In the end, I found Egyptian newspapers online, and looked at the names of the reporters or correspondents.

Similarly, when needing Irish names for ‘Irish Inheritance’, I had to tread a fine line between the ‘obvious’ Irish names of Paddy and Mick, and the names that sound nothing like they’re spelt (e.g. Caoimhe - pronounced Kee-va). In the end, I went for middle-of-the-road names like Daniel, Eve, and Rose.

My heroines usually have a ‘best’ friend in whom they can confide, and for these I quite often use the first name that comes into my head. That was certainly the case when I had my heroine mention her friend on the second page of ‘Irish Inheritance’: Maybe Charley would lend her the money for a quick trip to Dublin. At the time, even I didn’t know whether Charley was male or female (and neither did the hero until later in the story).

Now, however, I’m writing a new story with Charley as the heroine (yes, she is female, Charley is the nickname for Charlotte). When my editor suggested a spin-off story about Charley, my first reaction, was that I didn’t really want a heroine called Charley, but by then it was too late to change her name in ‘Irish Inheritance’, so I was stuck with it. Having said that, I’ve now become used to Charley as my heroine – and couldn’t conceive of her being called anything different.

The other friends in ‘Irish Inheritance’, Liz and Maria, have also reappeared in this new story. Again, those were names that jumped into my head and, as they were only minor characters, I didn’t give them much more thought. They are not names I would normally think of giving to one of my heroines, but if I eventually decide on another spin-off Irish story, one of them might become my new heroine. After all, a likeable young taxi driver has just appeared in the story and the hero has addressed him as ‘Ben’ – so who knows?

I’ve now made a mental note to myself: Choose your secondary characters’ names carefully because you never know if you will eventually write another story about one (or more) of them.


  1. So true about giving them a name that will be 'heroic' for another story. My editor also once told me to be careful with sounds and syllables so all of the names don't sound alike.

    I attended a sectional at my conference last weekend about creating secondary characters...very interesting stuff.

  2. I also try to avoid names beginning with the same letter too, Debra.

    Hope you'll share with us what you learnt about creating secondary characters - although I must admit mine often create themselves!

  3. I'm having that issue right now, Paula, as I debate which secondary character to use for the next book. But I love the idea of looking through newspapers! What a clever idea.

  4. I have an idea for next week's post! :)

  5. Jen, I shall be more aware of it in the future, as this is the first time I've tacked a spin-off story!
    The Egyptian newspapers were a result of desperation to find 'modern' Egyptian names!

  6. Sorry I'm late commenting. Blogger would not let me in.
    I have never thought far ahead enough to take sequel into consideration when choosing names for secondary characters. Great idea!
    I am deliberate about every character's name. I look for names that convey information about a character.

  7. I'd not thought about a sequel for mine, until my editor suggested it, Ana, but in future, I'll bear it in mind - just in case!