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What's in a name?

I find deciding on names for my characters to be a complex business. Main characters tend to already have their own names when they appear in my mind. Alfie from my second novel, Fracture, was never going to be called anything else even though I’m not entirely sure where the name came from. Kai, in Forgotten, was given the name because it is a Thai word for fever. It took me quite a while, trawling through a phrase book and looking on the internet, to find a word that I could also use as a name. Sometimes I need a surname and that’s where I tend to spin my chair round and scan my bookshelf for inspiration. I gave a character the surname Lomax because I have a copy of The Railwayman on the fifth shelf.

A big problem I have is that I tend to get stuck on a letter of the alphabet and many characters start off with similar names. I had Kai and Kate, then Rosie, Richard, Rita and Rachel. Not good for a reader who is being introduced to new characters. I’ve recently had a spate of surnames that start with R – what is it about that letter?

Then there’s friends and family. Can I use the name of a cousin or a colleague? Probably not but if I swap surnames then it opens up possibilities. But they have to be age appropriate – I can’t have an eighty-year-old Jaden but, apparently a six-year-old Elsie is okay. Some names come back into fashion and, being a teacher, I tend to be vaguely aware of trends.

I have to admit to raiding class lists and registers at school. I have a character in the novel that I’m writing at the moment who has the name of a student that one of my colleagues struggled with for a couple of years. More recently I’ve scanned down class lists while I’ve been in schools on supply and stolen an interesting first name or a geographically appropriate surname.

I’m writing about the area where I grew up at the moment and have found that I’m stealing the names of school friends and neighbours – a first name of a teacher with the surname of the woman who lived round the corner makes an interesting name for a police officer in her forties. A first name from a class list combined with the surname of a school friend provides the name of a small boy.

Sometimes a name can feel clunky and not quite real at first but, if it’s right and it fits the character, then, eventually, I can’t imagine them being called anything else.

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