All Write

The Moya Green Collection

What’s in a name?



Rather a lot, actually. At least, there is when you are trying to build up the image of a fictional character. This is particularly true in short story writing, where you might well have an upper word limit. If you only have a thousand or fifteen hundred words to play with, you cannot waste any on detailed description; get the name right and you are halfway there.

            What sort of information can one glean from a characters name? Their approximate age, for a start, or at least their generation. My mother’s contemporaries had names like Edith, Sybil or Maud. I grew up with Susans,  Barbaras and Elaines, while my daughter’s friends were all Emmas, Lisas, Zoes, and Janes. Men’s names are possibly less subject to changing fashion, but still a Cyril sounds older than a Jason.

            A characters name can also indicate social class – Fiona definitely sounds more upmarket than Tracey – though a certain amount of caution is advisable. Names often follow a cycle, starting off ‘posh’, then moving down the social scale as they  become more popular, falling out of use for a while before reappearing at the top end again. So you really need to know what stage of the cycle a particular name had reached when your character was born! There are a number of useful Internet sites which list  the most popular names in a given year, for example

            What else? Religion possibly. I doubt if you find many Protestants called Conceptua, or Roman Catholics called Luther. Many Biblical names are common to the Christian and Jewish tradition, but the form of the name can be a clue – whether Mary, Miriam or Mariamne.

            Names also have geographical significance; you can use them to show where your character comes from. The twentieth century fashion for foreign names (especially female) means this is not as useful as it might be, but still, If you call a character Nicolai there is a strong possibility that he is Russian. They can be even more specific – Higginses come from London, while anything ending in ‘–bottom’ has to be from the north. A name can be used to make a character fit the setting of the story, or stand out from it. What ‘O Reilly’ tells you about a character will differ, depending on whether the story is set in Dublin, New York or Timbuktu.

            Names also have to fit the historical period  - you would not want to give an eighteenth century leading man a modern sounding name. No Jane Austen hero was ever called Wayne. Anglo-Saxon names, for instance, were very rare before the late nineteenth century (except among the Anglo-Saxons, of course).

            Names in fiction are useful in expressing the personality of the character. If you want your hero or heroine to stand out, then give them an unusual name. Cliantha, say, or Tybalt. Good characters have pleasant sounding names – Angelica, Justin. Villains should sound villainous – Jasper, Hugo, Jezebel, Murdina. Or if you want your main character to be an ordinary person, give them an ordinary name – John, Anne, Peter, Mary.

            Important though it is to find names which fit your characters, it is even more important to avoid ones which don’t fit. I read a novel once, in which the main characters were a pair of young lovers, in a modern setting. The author had called her hero ‘Clarence’. Surely nobody under eighty is called Clarence? To cap it all, she had called the heroine, an aspiring actress, ‘Mavis’! It was no use. No matter how vividly she described them, I could not believe in Mavis and Clarence. So pick a name which fits, whether it’s Rudolf and Belinda or any Tom, Dick or Harry. Well. Tom and Harry are OK. I might be a bit wary of Dick.



The Character Builder

                 Character Creation Questionnaire 


1.   Name

2.   Age

3,   Where does he/she live?

4.   Marital status - attitude towards it

5.   Family - brothers and sisters, children?

6.   Occupations of parents

7.   Physical details: height: weight:  skin/hair colour:       
     other. Happy with appearance?

8.   Voice - pitch, accent, idiosyncrasies

9.   Style of dress (including nightwear)

10.  Self image - worries, insecurities, pride

11.  Education - successes, failures, hopes, mistakes

12.  Occupation and attitude towards it

13.  Political affiliations if any

14.  Favourite food/drink.  Smoker/non-smoker

15.  Favourite relaxation

16.  Favourite book/film/music
17.  Best friend

18.  Worst enemy

19.  Best fantasy

20.  Worst fear

21.  Best virtue

22.  Worst vice

23.  Best kept secret

24.  What do friends say about him/her?

25.  What do enemies say about him/her?

26.  What is his/her most pressing problem?

27.  What person or thing would he/she die to protect?

28   What would he/she never do?

29.  What does he/she most want?

30.  Describe a typical day in his/her life.

Bad Words Checklist

Not 'rude words' but words which tend to be overused, ot have a weakening effect on your writing  Use 'Find' facility to check how many times each one turns up in your piece, and if its use not justified - eliminate!  

and                      but                         that                   just
very                     nearly                    almost              really
seem                  appear                  
great                so
quite                   few                        rather
stuff                    anyway                  well                   because
then                   even                       only                  

down/up                    felt/feel                              got/get
there is/are                             begin/began
there was/were                      would/should/


Take a close look at:
  • all words ending in -ly (adverbs)
  • overuse of adjectives (one per noun sufficient for most purposes).
  • verbs in passive voice (e.g. I was hit by a bus)

Plot Generator

You know those time when you just can't seem to come up with any ideas? I have devised a way to kick-start the creative process. (It also works as a group exercise - I've tried it out on Tamworth Writers) I call it


To make

Take 9 cards (5x3 ins or A6 size). Cut each in half, then in half again.
Divide resulting 36 cards into 3 piles of 12 each. These are you Protagonist/ Antagonists/ McGuffins. Label back of each card accordingly.
On front of each card from P and A piles, write a possible character eg policeman, stepmother, lap dancer. You can give each one an attribute eg 'absent-minded balloonist'. This is not essential, but it makes things more interesting.
The third pile, the McGuffins, are things on which the plot turns. They may be actual objects - a car, a knife, a ring - or more intangible - a talent, a curse.

Below as an example, is my own general purpose kit.  Obviously the characters can be adapted to idndividual requirements. (Also, there is nothing magic about 12 per category. I chose to start with 36 because it can be divded by 3 and 4)

Protagonist                    Antagonist               McGuffin

unfaithful wife                beautiful footballer         bridge
undiscovered actress    bullying boss                 
inefficient secretary       mother-in-law                 fire
drunken sailor               violent nurse                  
deceived husband         impatient patient            

ungrateful child              badtempered driver       
unwilling pupil                sympathetic burglar        gift
deceived wife                 frightened bishop           door
unfaithful husband         unsuccessful murderer   will
envious gardener          rude shop assistant         ship
abandoned child           bald hairdresser              maze
frustrated writer            incompetent judge           threat

To use

Shuffle each pack and take a card from each. eg (P) unfaithful husband, (A) bald hairdresser (McG) key. Put them together, shake well and see what comes out.
Some people might like to combine the P and A categories in one, and simply draw out one card for P and a second for A.
Separate kits can be made up for genre plots. This is my Fantasy Kit:

Protagonist       Antagonist        McGuffin

prince                   dwarf                   cup
princess               witch                    sword
knight                   dragon                 crown
wizard                  ghost                    mirror
poor girl               stepmother           ring
fairy/elf                goblin                   stone
3rd son                sorceror               book
peasnt boy          tyrant                   map
cat                       wolf                      tree

A Sci-Fi Kit could include - mad inventor, space explorer, aliens etc. while
a Crime/Mystery kit might need 4 categories: Crime; Perpetrator; Victim; Detective;

The permutations are endless - and the method does work . I've tried it!