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Dianne Salerni : Writer of Teen and Middle Grade Fiction | When Characters Choose Their Own Names

When Characters Choose Their Own Names

Who picks the names for your characters? You … or they?
I might have some say in the naming of minor characters, but my main characters are pretty headstrong. (Have you read about the time they drove my car?)
In my current WIP, my MC came to me in a fully formed first line, throwing a breakfast roll at her aunt for suggesting she agree to an arranged marriage with a distant cousin for the sake of an inheritance.  Of course, she didn’t have a name at the time, although I knew she was the daughter of an eccentric archaeologist and she’d traveled the world with him before his death left her destitute.
I started researching turn-of-the-century women’s names and made a list of possibilities. Then one day, I spotted (or rather my MC spotted) a name on my blog roll. Author Marva Dasef was doing a series of posts about characters in her Witches of Galdorheim books and Ardyth appeared as part of her post title. (Turns out her character was named after author Ardyth DeBruyn, but that’s another story.)
“That’s my name,” said my MC. “Change the Y to an E, though.”
“O-kay, I’ll put it on the list,” I said, not sure about the name Ardeth at all.
“Delete your list,” she said. “My name is Ardeth Meriwether. I won’t stand for anything else.”
Ardeth’s cousin turned out to be just as difficult — no surprise, there!  I was trolling through websites with Victorian/turn-of-the-century names for men, when I came across one that listed common nicknames of the time period.  The nickname Cage caught my eye, but it was a shortened form of Micajah, which was just YUCK.
“I like Cage,” my character told me.
“You can’t have it,” I told him. “It’s too modern-sounding to be used by itself, and Micajah is awful.”  I googled up another list, and – would you believe it? – Micajah was on that one too, listed with its common nickname of Cager.
“That’s it,” the young man said. “I’m telling you; that’s my name.”
“Nope,” I said, writing down some of the other names on the list. “In fact, I’m leaning toward naming you Harrison.”
“That’s my family name. I’m Cage Harrison, which has a nice sound to it.”
“But Micajah Harrison is terrible!” I objected. “No love interest can be named Micajah!”
“That’s why I don’t use my full name,” he argued. “Besides – think how Ardeth will feel when she finds out I go by the nickname Cage! Being cornered into an arranged, loveless marriage for the sake of an inheritance would make her feel pretty caged, wouldn’t it?”
He had a point. It was fairly poetic.  I gave in.
Am I the only person who gets run over rough-shod by my own characters? Please tell me I’m not!

28 Responses to When Characters Choose Their Own Names

  1. That’s too funny. I’m sure others will say their characters choose their names. As little as I control with plot, I do scan baby name websites looking for exactly the right name.

  2. Jaime Loren says:

    You. Crack. Me. Up.

    I’m so glad I’m not the only one out there whose characters control the show. I have absolutely no say. I had to come up with a believable reason as to why a man born in Connecticut, in 1710, was named Scott Parker, when Scott as a first name didn’t even pop up until around 100 years ago.

    And don’t even get me STARTED on the fact he’s blonde … 😉

  3. That’s. Awesome.

    LOVED the nickname Cage btw!

  4. Ha. Too funny. My characters do the same thing. They can be bossy.

  5. Sarah says:

    Nah, I choose them, often according to their meanings. But I love to hear your stories about how your characters assert themselves, Dianne!

  6. Linda G. says:

    LOL! Love that. And, yeah, my characters come with their own names. I’ve learned it’s pointless to argue with them.

  7. KrysteyBelle says:

    He he Remember I told you I changed JT’s name (the store owner) no less than 5 times. His was more a case of:

    “I don’t like my name rhyming with that.”
    “That’s not me at all. How am I supposed to project a manager-ly air with that name?”
    “No, I’m not Uncle Tom.”

  8. Chris Fries says:

    Great post, Dianne! I love the way your characters boss you around, LOL! Mine too. 😉

    I’ve no special system for finding names. I’ve learned that the initial visualizing and formulating of my characters usually tends to cause a name to pop into my mind. More often than once I’ve discarded that first-impulse name, spent days of browsing and ruminating, generating lists of possibilities, and then ended right back at my original first choice.

    So now I throw up my hands and just go with my gut… Who am I to argue with my characters?

  9. This is why I always say the characters are in control and I just take dictation- because they choose their own names, personalities, I am helpless to change them, they are who they are.

    This is why I know if I am ever to be a published novelist it’ll have to be self-publishing LOL

    and now I’m remembering the time I realized I had ‘met’ a character named Keiran. O’Sullivan. From a very large as you can imagine Catholic family.

    I think it was about sixteen names I needed (first and middle to go with the last) and I swear I just sat down and wrote them out as if I was listing my own family members.

    It’s wonderful.

    And scary.

    And I LOVE this post!


  10. Cage sound fun, but I like Ardeth even better. Many of my characters have simple names, but not all.

  11. Love this Dianne! And I LOVE the name Cage. Yes, my characters are so annoying. My MC in my last WIP did the same thing, insisting on a name. Then, I found out her name doesn’t even exist. Anywhere. It’s not even real. We got into a screaming fight and I had to give in 😉

  12. TC Avey says:

    Love it! I feel as if my Characters pick their names, their habits and so much more. They really do take on a life and an attitude!

  13. LOL- this literally just happened to me the other day. I’ve started a blurb about a young girl whose father is french and named her ‘Manon’ which is usually pronounced ‘Mah-Noh’ but the americans make her sounds like a ‘man-nun’. I swear, I had nothing to do with this. She explained it all to me while I buttered some toast yesterday morning:)

  14. mshatch says:

    I’m afraid my characters don’t start talking tome until I’ve named them and worked out some background stuff.

    I do love those names though; they’re perfect 🙂

  15. Love the Ardeth name! I wrote down names from my college years (presumably for future children, but my husband would never have agreed to “Enlil Poseidon…”–at this point, neither would I!). I love names that are different but not unbelievable. Just had to shorten/change lots of Viking names in my own book, since there were so many “Thor_____” names, readers got lost! Now they’re more unique.

  16. LOL! Your characters sound wonderful.

    Mine are often the same way. They’re like, “Heeey, this is me!” and I’m like, “I can’t use that name/nickname!” They just don’t care and don’t listen. Yup. I understand completely.

  17. Diane, I feel like we’re on the same wavelength. I did a post about names today too 🙂

    Tricky, tricky and your lucky your characters choose their names for themselves!

  18. Marva Dasef says:

    I’ll have to make sure Ardyth (the real life one) knows her name is so popular.

    I had a character named Cage one time. I got it from a Texas history website. The guy actually lived. The story is “Cage McNatt’s Prize Sow” from Tales of a Texas Boy.

  19. Lenny Lee* says:

    hi miss dianne! wow! did you know how cool that ardeth name is cause shes the daughter of a archeologist and in that way old movie the mummy it was arteth bey who helped bring the mummy back to being alive. i like the name cage. i had a problem with a couple of my mcs names and gunther the mountain goat named himself and so did fletch the grellow bird. for sure you gotta listen to your mc.
    …hugs from lenny

  20. Funny!

    Some of my characters just pop into being already named, but others make me dig for them, searching baby name databases and everything. Weird how that works.

  21. Well, now I’m feeling deprived. My characters are a bunch of slackers. No initiative or imagination, and not at all assertive. They make ME do all the work. But your characters came up with some perfect names.

  22. Lydia Kang says:

    I’ve used some of those sites to find secondary names, but lots of time they just pop into my head. 🙂

  23. Hahah okay I giggled throughout this entire post! 🙂 And yes this happens to me too! I’m so glad I’m not crazy! I didn’t even have a chance to name my character before the name just spilled out. I was running over a scene in my head and the name my other character called out was Arianna. So that’ll be my new character’s name.

    There is my WIP where I leaned towards Alexia–but her name is Alex now it doesn’t feel right and I may go back and change everything to Alexia. GO with the gut!

  24. DL Hammons says:

    Nope….you’re full on looney tunes! 🙂

  25. Great post. Sometimes I start with a name and know staright away that it is just right for a character, othertimes it just doesn’t work for me and eventually I have to change it.
    When I made soft sculpted figures, sometimes what I envisioned while i made them came out in the end product. Othetimes the character of the doll was more determined than my initial vision and became something else entirely.

  26. Characters that name themselves usually come to me without a plot, and then they hang around for ages whilst I work out what their story is. I’t’s much harder to name characters when I come up with the story idea first.

  27. Pk Hrezo says:

    Lol! They cab be pesky buggers, can’t they? That’s why we love them tho. Naming my characters is one of my fave part of the process. 🙂

  28. Having just finished my first book in the overall genre of fantasy, I used a “Fantasy Name Generator” from the web to get ideas and go from there. Hmmm, there is an “Uncle Owen” in the story… I wonder where that came from…I don’t even know any Owens. Huh! He named himself the little bugger!