Getting to know a new character is like being on an archaeological dig: carefully dusting off a buried treasure and seeing it slowly reveal itself. Characters, to me, aren’t really created so much as discovered…to such an extent that if I get their names wrong, they definitely let me know about it.
Alex has always been Alex, if you’re wondering – his name came to me instantly. So did Seb’s. Willow’s took a while to get right. I spent several weeks desperately trawling through ‘name your baby’ websites, because the thing is, until you have a character’s name, you can’t write. Or at least I can’t. Then driving my car one day, a thought came from nowhere: ‘I wonder if she’s named after a tree..?’ (The writing-gods obviously felt sorry for me and decided to give me a hint.)
Weirdly, if you change a character’s name, the character changes. Remember Kara? She was originally named Mia, and was different in lots of minor ways. When I changed her name, she shifted. (If anyone’s curious, Kara was named after Kara Thrace of the new Battlestar Galactica series – I saw her as a mix of that character and Zoe from Firefly.) (Yes, I know: Geek Alert.) (Which also means – tangent – that her name is pronounced to rhyme with Farrah.)
Now that I’m writing something new, the naming process has again reared its sometimes-agonising head. I thought I had my new main character’s name right: Danni. But for the first 20k words or so, I had no idea what she looked like. None. I kept writing descriptions and then taking them out again, because they didn’t feel right, and who was this girl anyway, and ARGH.
Then I got an email from my lovely mate Julie Cohen, who reported that she’d just changed her main character’s name and suddenly her whole book was singing. Huh, I thought. I want my book to sing. I wonder if…
So I went back to the drawing board – and when I delved a bit more into the story’s world and my character’s backstory, I saw that her name just didn’t fit. I started thinking thematically, looking at synonyms for words that are crucial to the main story concept. The moment I saw ‘Amity’, I got chills. (Chills are good.) More importantly (but also kind of spooky), suddenly I could SEE her – looking nothing like I’d thought, yet utterly vivid in my mind’s eye. Now the problem is almost that she’s come to life too much. She very much has a mind of her own.
So…yeah. Names. You gotta get them right.