How I name my characters – Francesca Hornak

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By Francesca Hornak

I love names – in life, and in fiction. A name creates an impression before you meet someone, and helps you remember them afterwards. That makes them an invaluable tool for a writer. ♥

Of course the same name can mean different things to different people. When I hear that classic 1980s name ‘Nicole’ I think of an unfortunate, nasal-voiced girl at my school, whereas you might think of your impossibly cool babysitter. But certain names have pretty universal associations, worth bearing in mind when naming a character. That might be because the name belongs to a well-known person (Adolf is the obvious example), or because it carries strong class connotations. Then there are certain names which most of us agree just sound a certain way. Weren’t ‘Mariellas’ born to be gorgeous? And aren’t Nigels doomed to work in accounts? Araminta (besides being terminally posh) somehow feels bony, because of the skinny ‘in’ sound and the angular capital A.

I have a method for naming my characters. To begin with I’m pragmatic. I want my characters’ names to be plausible, given their age and socio-economic background, so I start by Googling the 50 most popular baby names for the year and country in which the character was born. Next I’ll pick a name from the list that sounds like a convincing choice by the character’s parents. A child born to metropolitan media types is going to have a subtly different name to a child born to provincial doctors. If you’re writing about a small section of society, as I was in Seven Days Of Us, not all of the top ten names of the period are going fit.

Next, I get intuitive. I think about the character’s looks, manner and how they make others feel, and hunt for a name whose consonants, vowels and rhythm convey those traits. My character Andrew Birch, for example, is a tall, thin, irritable restaurant critic. For me, the hard n and d in Andrew, and the plosive monosyllable of Birch, fitted his character.

Andrew’s wife is a warm, matronly character with aristocratic blood. I called her Emma because of its soft middle and feminine ending, but gave her the maiden name Hartley because that ‘art’ syllable sounds refined to me (plus the phonetic sound Hart suggests tenderness and integrity). Ideally I’ll find a name that actually looks like the character in print. Andrew Birch with its sharp A and tall d and h suits an ectomorph, while Emma with its round ms and looping y is nice for a bosomy mother.

Lastly, I check all my characters’ names are distinct from one another. I make sure they each begin with a different letter, and ideally have a different cadence. I nearly called Phoebe in Seven Days Of Us ‘Ella’, which would have fitted her age and background, but you can’t have an Ella and Emma in the same book so I had to switch. I think that’s the least you can do for your readers – I hate trying to remember who’s who in a book.

Once I’ve settled on a name for a character, it’s liberating. They finally become a firm, three-dimensional person, someone I can inhabit and send down their path in the story. And if you just can’t pick the perfect moniker? Don’t worry. Slow naming of characters is the best procrastination I know.

Francesca Hornak is a journalist and writer whose work has appeared in newspapers and magazines, including The Sunday Times, The Guardian, Elle, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, and Red. She is the author of two nonfiction books, History of the World in 100 Modern Objects: Middle-Class Stuff (and Nonsense) and Worry with Mother: 101 Neuroses for the Modern Mama. Seven Days of Us is out today.


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