Beginning a new novel means dreaming up new characters. Some will play very minor roles, others may evolve to carry the heart of the story, but they all need names.
This will be the third book in a series featuring Detective Inspector Grace Fisher, following on from Good Girls Don’t Die and Shot Through the Heart (published March 2016). When a name for a new character popped easily into my head, but then felt rather too familiar, I realised that I needed to make a list of all the character names I’ve already used – and was amazed to find there are already well over fifty on the list just for these three books.
If I look back over five novels and almost fifty screenplays for film and TV drama, that’s a lot of people I’ve dreamed up. Enough to populate a small village.
Some I can barely remember. Others still feel as vivid as friends or colleagues I’ve lost touch with but who nevertheless remain a part of my life, of me.
Naming characters is an odd business. Often a name just doesn’t sit right, which seems to prevent the character quite coming into focus. When that happens, finally hitting upon the right one feels satisfying and important.
When the police have to name an operation, they apparently consult a list compiled from dog breeds, American rivers, English coastal towns or exotic birds. I have used names connected with Shakespeare’s Globe or Victorian watercolourists, and also, when setting something in Manchester, pulled out a class list for a long-ago school reunion. Once, when requested, I named a character in memory of a friend’s mother: it took a while to find a minor character whom I felt really deserved her name.
Quite often I’ll look at lists of pop, movie or sports stars who were in the news the year a character would have been born – the kind of associations meaningful to my character’s parents – and choose something that helps me to keep in mind the world they were born into, the style and aspirations they were brought up with.
As Alfred Hitchcock is said to have remarked, you have to know what your characters keep in their cupboards (dead bodies, skeletons and all). Their name is what has to be written on the door.