On naming and renaming

Silver Palace Animated Cover
I’m experimenting with animated covers using Plotagraph. What do you think?

It has been nearly two weeks since the launch of The Spy in the Silver Palace, my new YA fantasy adventure about a girl who can change her appearance. Today I want to tell the story of how I almost gave the main character the wrong name.

I don’t have a particularly scientific method for coming up with names for my characters. I go with whatever feels right, which is often the first or second name to pop into my head. Occasionally I’ll brainstorm names in a notebook, but there are usually only a few options that fit the person taking shape in my mind. This is true whether it’s a real world name or a made-up fantasy one.

I try not to use the same first letter for any major characters unless there’s a specific reason, such as with the three Amintelle siblings in the Steel and Fire series, whose names are all a different number of syllables so they’ll look different on the page (Siv, Sora, and Selivia). Sometimes I change a name partway through writing a story, but this is more common with minor characters. If I introduce an important person later in a story, I might go back and rename a minor character to avoid repeating the initial sound.

With my Seabound series, I used themes for inspiration (i.e. Biblical names on the Catalina and literary names on the Galaxy). The Steel and Fire fantasy series called for made-up names. I came up with some of these by playing around with the letters in existing names (Olivia -> Selivia) and some by just trying out sounds that could work as names (Siv, Ivren). There’s one character (a minor duelist from Steel and Fire), with a name I thought was a random fantasy-sounding name until I got an email from a reader with the same name (first and last) asking if we knew each other.

With the new series, I decided to use a mixture of real and fantasy names (as in Game of Thrones) and use some of the character and place names to give the world a certain luxurious texture (Sapphire, Ruby, the Silver Palace, Obsidian, Jewel Harbor). I wanted to make sure the main character’s name wasn’t too similar to any I’ve used before. My protagonists are called Esther (The Seabound Chronicles), Dara (Steel and Fire), and Joanna (from a not-yet-published MS).

The name Talli (short for Tallison) popped into my head early on, and I just went with it for the first three drafts of The Spy in the Silver Palace (which was titled The Princess Impersonator for two of those drafts). The name fit the character well, and I liked having people use her full name in specific moments.

Unfortunately, I forgot one important thing: the main character of a popular YA book called The Uglies is named Tally. I have read this book, but for some reason the character name either didn’t stick in my mind or it stuck in exactly the wrong place. I didn’t realise the similarity until my sister read the near-final draft of The Spy in the Silver Palace and pointed it out.

Having characters with the same name isn’t necessarily a deal breaker. You can’t name someone Katniss or Gatsby, but I don’t think anyone minds that there’s a Harry Dresden and a Harry Potter. Reacher isn’t the only Jack, and I bet there are so many literary Peters that we all think of a different one first (Pevensie, Pan, Rabbit).

I wrestled with whether or not to keep my Talli. I was spelling the name differently, and The Uglies is set in a future dystopia not a fantasy world. But here’s what made the decision for me: The Uglies and The Spy in the Silver Palace both explore themes of beauty and the role of appearance in how one is treated. Although everything else about the books is different, from the way appearances change to the future vs. fantasy setting to the actual plots, I didn’t feel I could keep such a similar name for my heroine. So, just like the character-formerly-known-as-Talli can change her face, I decided to change her name.

Finding a new name was a much harder task after I’d spent so long thinking of the character as Talli. I wrote down a lot of possibilities and asked for suggestions from my writers group. The name Mica was suggested quite early on, but I needed something that could have a longer version, and I was wary of ending with yet another ‘a’ sound. I wrote down pages and pages of names, including trying out every variation of Talli with a different initial sound (Ralli, Elli, Malli, etc.). I kept coming back to Mica, though, partly because I liked the sounds and partly because the name fit in with the texture of the world that I mentioned earlier. Mica is a simple mineral, not a precious jewel, and that fits well with a character who finds herself among the nobility when she least expects it. It took ages to come up with an appropriate longer version of the name, but I finally settled on Micathea. It has a nice fantasy sound, and it fits the somewhat Mediterranean flair of Jewel Harbor.

All that was left then was to use the replace-all function in Word and try to cement the character of Mica in my mind. Writing the fourth and final draft felt a bit like editing someone else’s book, but ultimately I think it was the right choice to make the change. And next time I’ll pay more attention to which character names are already being used in my genre.

You can read Mica’s story, The Spy in the Silver Palace, as an ebook, paperback or with Kindle Unlimited. I’m hard at work on the sequel now!

One thought on “On naming and renaming

  1. Ray Greenley says:

    Thanks for the interesting view into your process. Personally, I very much appreciate your approach to naming. Having distinct names for major characters (and particularly each having a different starting letter) makes my job of narrating the book much easier.

    And I think the animated cover looks great. It definitely catches my eye!

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