Naming a Heroine

I recently read a post on Twitter from a well-known writer in which she bemoaned the fact that after twenty or so novels, she was running out of names for heroines.

I sympathise. Although, when it comes to choosing characters’ names, I’ve always felt there to be a larger pool of girls’ names than boys’, with a similar number of novels under my belt I’ve lately found myself scrabbling around. I’ve already reused and recycled, to some extent. There’s a Katherine in THE DARK-EYED GIRLS, a Kay in THE HEART OF THE NIGHT and a Kate in A STEP IN THE DARK. A Julia (WRITTEN ON GLASS) and a Juliet (THE JEWELLER’S WIFE); a Sara (BEFORE THE STORM) and a Sadie (HIDDEN LIVES) – Sadie is a pet name for Sara/Sarah.

I need to think carefully when choosing a name for my central character. I want the reader to sympathise with my heroine, so I want the reader to like the name I’ve chosen. I rule out names linked with unpopular or unsavoury people in the news or in history. I also rule out names forever associated with a particular woman – Diana, Marilyn, perhaps even Delia and Adele. I wouldn’t choose the names of family or close friends because it would colour my view of the character.

As most of my novels are set in the early- to mid-twentieth century, the names of my characters must be in keeping with the period. A quick scan of this year’s list of the UK’s top hundred girls’ names reveals Hallie, Luna, Harper and Darcie, all attractive names but too modern sounding to be used in a novel of mine. Another glance over 2022’s list finds Violet, Ada, Olive, Elsie and Mabel. My grandmother’s name, Florence, is there too. These charming names are currently back in fashion after many years in the cold. However, they won’t do for characters in the 50s, 60s and 70s, because back then, they would have been considered out of date, suitable for great aunts, not young women.

I’m unlikely to choose an obscure name without very good reason (apologies to all you Sophonisbas and Ethelburgs out there); the same goes, if my heroine is English, for Welsh and Irish girls’ names. Lovely though many of those names are, it wouldn’t work because the name is a shorthand for the character, and should reflect who she is, where she comes from and how she expresses herself. My heroines’ names must be straightforward to pronounce, especially as my books are published in a variety of languages. If I do end up choosing an unusual name (Clemency in ALL MY SISTERS, Topaz in WRITTEN ON GLASS), I try to select one that’s easy for the reader to say in her head.

It’s impossible to pin down why a name suits a character. Writing this article, I look back and try to pinpoint why I chose that name for that particular heroine. For instance, I called the heroine of THE JEWELLER’S WIFE Juliet. I’ve always liked the name, but it has, of course, an association with tragedy, and my Juliet’s story begins with loss. In THE SECRETS BETWEEN US, two of the central female characters are called Thea and Rowan. The name Thea, with its ancient Greek roots, seemed appropriate for the serious, cerebral woman my character is. Rowan is a chic, slightly unusual name, suitable for a heroine who is stylish and complex. The rowan tree has folklore associations in Scotland and a part of my Rowan’s heart will always remain in that majestically beautiful part of the world.

It isn’t an intellectual process, the choosing of names: it’s instinctive. Recently, a session in the local park with my grandsons became one of the starting points for a future novel after I overheard the names of a group of children and the older girl who was with them. For some reason they chimed and sparked off an idea for a book.

I always know when I’ve found the right name for my girl. Though I’m happy when selecting a name for a secondary character to flick through a book of names or a list on Google, I take time choosing my heroine’s name. It needs to just come to me. As soon as I’ve found it, her story starts to come alive. As I begin to rough out the plan for my next book, I realise that my central character is called Olivia. That’s who she is; and from that moment on she starts to take shape.