Tony Birch believes in the power of names so much that he usually can’t begin to write a word in a short story or novel without first naming his characters.
He even has notebooks full of names of potential characters.
“The names have a huge resonance… without that name it’s almost a feeling of the character without a face,” says Birch.
But that wasn’t the case with his Miles Franklin shortlisted book for 2020, The White Girl.
In a fictional ’60s rural Australian town, Aboriginal matriarch Odette Brown tries to stop a local police officer from removing her granddaughter Sissy from care.
The first draft of the novel had a placeholder name for its protagonist until Birch described it as “a fateful moment”.
He met the mother of an emerging Indigenous writer (whose name he curiously forgot now) at a writers’ conference.
“She said her name was ‘Odette’ and that she had a strong beautiful face and a face like [the face] I might have imagined for my character, ”Birch told RN’s The Book Show.
The novelist told Odette within 10 seconds: “It’s good to meet you – and you are going to be in a novel.”
“She probably wasn’t sure I was telling the truth,” Birch laughs. “She might have thought, ‘I bet he’s telling everyone that.'”
Luckily, Birch had stumbled upon a name he felt was right, as New York Times bestselling fantasy writer Garth Nix warns that a bad name will “throw the reader out of the story.”
It hasn’t stopped other sci-fi and fantasy writers, including the American author. Patrick rothfuss – regularly auction the rights to name characters to raise funds for charities or to finance their work.
Unless a chance encounter or charity fundraiser, how do writers find the names of their literary creations?
Honor the living and the dead
“But the two last names of the police officers [in the novel] are also the names of two non-native men who committed very violent acts, that I participated in or that I was aware of, ”says Birch.
This includes the name of the man who tried to kidnap Birch as a child, and the man who killed his Uncle Liam, 18.
Birch named several of his characters after this uncle, as a way of honoring him.
Queensland author Tabitha Bird named the character Ann in The Emporium of Imagination after her grandmother, who died while writing her novel.
“So the name will be forever, of course, in print. And that just makes me happy that it’s in a book,” Bird said.
In Mirandi Riwoe’s novel Stone Sky Gold Mountain, siblings Ying and Lai Yue flee their home in China to make their fortune in Australia’s gold fields.
Riwoe named Lai Yue after a man she met who was from the same part of southern China as her characters, but Riwoe found the name of another main character – Meriem – by visiting an elder Chinchilla Cemetery, Queensland.
“Lots of gravestones are from the 1850s, 60s, 70s. And there were a few Meriems in there… I really liked how different the name is, but it’s still close to Miriam.”
Feel and ear
The process that leads writers to their character names can be almost mystical.
“[Naming is] probably one of the most touch and ear elements of writing for me, ”says novelist and college professor Ronnie Scott (The Adversary).
“Eventually you just hit the one that smells the right mix in some way indicative of the character, and in another way not completely at odds with the other names in the book.”
As Scott goes on a journey to find the name that works perfectly, Bird stumbled upon the name of the protagonist of his book in a sort of Eureka moment.
Earlatidge Hubert Umbray is the perfect name for the keeper of a walking magic shop who mends shattered dreams and helps people reconnect with their lost loved ones.
“It’s going to sound completely impossible, but it’s very true, the name just came to me completely formed,” Bird said.
“I could hear the name Earlatidge in my head… It was sticking out of my little typing fingers, and there it was on the page.”
Fly and combine
Many writers turn to other books and stories to find their names.
Garth Nix took names from phone books and changed them to suit his most fantastic characters.
He also named characters in tribute to favorites and influences; in his most recent book, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, he named a character after CS Lewis’s Susan of Narnia, and author Susan Cooper (whose best-known work is the fantasy series The Dark Is Rising).
Two other characters in the book – Merlin and Vivien – take their names from Arthurian legend.
“One of the other things that I have also done, following a long tradition, is that I stole a name from Shakespeare,” says Nix.
Nix named The Abhorsen, who is responsible for maintaining the line between life and death in his hit series Old Kingdom, after the executioner Abhorson in Measure for Measure (with a slightly different spelling).
Nix’s most famous creation is Sabriel, the necromancer heroine from the Old Kingdom series.
“I wanted a powerful name that also hinted at some kind of darkness… So I looked at the words that meant these things and separated the words, and took fragments of the words and recombined them.” , he explains.
Sabriel is a combination of ‘sable’, a heraldic term for black, and ‘iel’, a suffix of many angel names.
Nix regularly receives emails from fans who have named their daughters Sabriel.
Fiction is also filled with anonymous protagonists, from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Ronnie Scott’s 2020 debut novel, The Adversary, tells the story of two gay best friends who reflect on the future of their friendship over a summer in Melbourne.
Scott had named his protagonist in his early drafts, but was later convinced by his editor to make the main character anonymous.
The novel is told in the first person and takes place over a short period.
“I wanted the world to be really filtered through the way he [the main character] seen, and we don’t constantly think about our own names, ”Scott says.
“He’s a character who focuses on other people, especially one other person: his best friend.
“There was no big reason he didn’t have a name, but there were a lot of little reasons that added up.”
Indo-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut novel, The Namesake, was, as its title suggests, quite preoccupied with names; in it, protagonist Gogol Ganguli, whose family moved from India to Massachusetts in the late 1960s, struggles with his name.
But Whereabouts, her latest novel, is about a nameless woman adrift in a nameless town.
“The details were purposely withheld, so that other elements may have come to the surface,” Lahiri said.
She says readers focus on the names of characters, towns and streets, and that without these “points of reference” other questions arise.