Finding the right name for your main character

One of the difficulties I had in That Difficult Novel was finding the right name for the protagonist.  When I first created the novel (many years before I actually began work on it), I really fancied calling her Ygraine.  But this is a famous name in a famous tale with huge historical connotations, so using it would be a deliberate act, a direct reference to Arthurian legend.  As I had no reason to use it other than that I liked it, I realised at once that I would have to change it.

And change it I did.  A hundred times.  I worked as hard on finding the right name as I did on the millions of notes I ended up making in trying to get the novel written.  The novel is borderline fantasy so I couldn’t use anything too modern.  But I didn’t want to use anything too obviously fantasy-style either.  I began to lean towards Welsh names but that would have been too obvious as well.  And anyway, my novel wasn’t set in Wales.  It wasn’t actually set anywhere, which was half the problem.

In the end, I came up with Ilgria.  This had at least 90 different spellings before I settled on the simplest version (other versions had the letter Y in various places).  And Ilgria she remained for several years.  Having abandoned its the novel for a year or two, I decided that what was wrong with it (amongst other things) was that the name was wrong.  It has the sound of the word “ill” at the beginning, making her sound, well, ill.  Having re-watched Lord of the Rings for about the nth time, I recalled a speech given in Elvish by one of the characters using the word “elanen.”  At least, that’s what it sounded like to me.  Brilliant, I thought:  that could be a name!  So Ilgria became Elanen.  It does, at least, sound like a name, although I argued with myself lengthily on how it should be pronounced and that it was likely to be mispronounced by everyone who read it and wondered why it wasn’t just Elaine.

Another year trickled by.  I had a brainwave:  the reason why I was struggling with a name for my main character was because she wasn’t supposed to have a name.  She was meant to be nameless!  The story is, after all, a Beauty and the Beast allegory, and Beauty, as we know, didn’t have a name.  The story is told in the first person so I thought it would be a simple matter of deleting the name wherever it appeared.

I began this task this week.  There were over 200 instances of the name being used, quite extraordinary when you think it’s a first person tale.  But off I went, deleting the name, primarily uttered by others in conversation with our heroine.  There were some awkward places where a name was really required but I managed to get round those, sometimes losing something of the art of the novel in the process.

And then I got to the third act.  This is narrated by the love interest, the main male character, and it didn’t take me too long to realise that it was utterly impossible for her not to have a name.  If he kept referring to Elanen as “her”, it would  make him seem cold.  And there were sentences where I absolutely had to have a name for her.  I couldn’t just knock the name out;  I had to find another word to replace it.  At one point I just came up with “joy.”  He refers to her in a way that ended, “… Elanen” which I then turned into “… joy.”  But this was lame.  It didn’t work.  I didn’t like it.  She had to have a name, after all.

Back to square one.  The same problem for what must be 7 years now:  what do I call this bloody woman?!  I googled “joy” in other languages and came up with “alegria” in Spanish.  Recalling that Allegra is a popular name (I think it means joy in Italian), I wondered if I could use Alegria.  I didn’t want to use Allegra as this brought to mind Byron’s daughter Allegra, whom he tore away from his discarded lover and stuffed into a convent (the child), where she promptly died.  (I think Byron is an utter shit but anyway.)

Alegria worked.  It even sounds a bit like Ilgria but is more feminine and somehow more familiar looking.  So now I had to go back and reinsert the name!  Fortunately this was quite easy as I was using a new copy of the document and could just have the original open beside it on my screen.  I’ve decided to keep her name in minimal use in the first two acts, though, as her almost-namelessness still strikes me as a good idea.  It seems to work better when we, as a reader, hardly know her name, while her lover uses it constantly, thus establishing her identity.

The irony of all this is that I hardly ever have trouble with names.  They pop into my head from nowhere.  Gomenzi as one of my favourite inventions, so good I had to make two of them (he had a twin).  I love Angelica Zippoli as well.  And Sistia Scarpora.  Most names just bounce out the ether, for which I’m eternally grateful.

Okay, wait, I’m seeing a theme here:  why do all my names SOUND ITALIAN?????!

Anyway,  names are important.  Don’t be afraid to change them.  If you want people to like your character, they have to like their name too.



About susannahjbell

I am a writer of science fiction and other strange and surreal works. I mostly write novels and the occasional novelette. My published works include A Doorway into Ultra, the Fleet Quintet and the Exodus Sequence. I live in London in an attic flat but really want to live in a tree. I wanted to be an astrophysicist but would settle for an alien abduction. I write because I don’t know what to read.
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