It’s a tricky thing choosing names for the characters in your books. What can sound perfectly delightful to one person could be a complete deal-breaker for the next. I remember a discussion with a writer friend who was proposing to call the hero of her next novel “Gus.” To me, it didn’t sound heroic at all – “Gus” gave me a mental picture of someone chubby and a bit dim (I suppose because of Augustus Gloop). But for her, living in Scotland, it was short for Angus, which is a bold, swaggering, kilt-wearing name. She (rightly) stuck to her guns, and her fans loved the book. And Gus.
Sometimes choosing a name is easy. The name Michael has always been my favourite for boys, so the hero of my first book was always going to be a Michael (not Mike – always Michael). For Time After Time, it was a bit trickier. It had to be an unusual name, to befit someone who was always the cleverest, most beautiful, most individual boy in the school. I picked Gideon, because it sounded suitably heroic and I was fairly sure not many secondary schools in the north-west of England in the 1980s would have had a Gideon on the register. It might even be a name that would get him bullied, which would have an impact on the fiercely independent person he turns out to be.
In the book I’m currently writing, the hero is called Billy, which wouldn’t be on my list of exciting names ordinarily. I didn’t set out to write about a hero called Billy, because I didn’t plan for Billy to be the hero. In the very first draft of the early chapters he had a walk-on part and then left. That was the idea, anyway, but this character with his tattoos, his confidence in his own attractiveness and his serene assumption that life will turn out well for him refused to go away. So I found myself with a hero called Billy, because by then he seemed too real to contemplate calling him anything else.
I find surnames harder to come up with than first names. I often look at the credits at the end of a film or TV programme for inspiration, to give me an idea of a surname I mightn’t have thought of. Looking at place names on a map can also give lots of ideas, as traditionally a lot of people’s names are geographical in origin (North, England, Heath – and Caulfield, as mentioned below).
My top five favourite (male) character names in fiction
1- Sabin Fitzsimon, the wonderful hero of Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Falcons of Montabard
2 – Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye
3 – Gabriel Oak in Far From the Madding Crowd
4 – Titus Groan in Gormenghast
5 – Nearly every Culture spacecraft Iain M Banks gave a name to (not strictly male, I know, but too wonderful to miss out)