What’s in a name? The art of naming characters.

shutterstock_372582442If I could choose my name, I’d call myself Sagarika. Something about the name touches a deep chord within. To my ears it sounds lyrical, reminiscent of sagar, the sea. Since none of us have a say in choosing the one thing we have to live with – our name; I decided that I would name my child thus. But life, like always has other plans. I have a boy and since I never wanted two kids, there wasn’t any hope for Sagarika in my life. When I began writing my first novel in 2014, there was no doubt in my mind about the name of the protagonist, a female. Thus was born Sagarika and my debut novel. Truth be told I didn’t think much about the names of the other characters. In the ensuing period; discussions with author friends and myriad workshops educated me on the importance of naming characters.

So what’s in a name really? Shakespeare’s oft-repeated quote has been done to death but ask authors about the names they give to their characters, seldom will they attribute the name to a random selection.Rowling chose Harry because she wanted every reader young and small to identify with the orphaned kid. Harry being a common English name. For all other characters, potions, places and etc she has let her imagination run will and how! In her own words:

“I am a bit of a name freak. A lot of the names that I didn’t invent come from maps.Snape is a place name in Britain. Dumbledore means — is a bumblebee in an old English dialect word for bumblebee. Hagrid is also an old English word. Hedwig was a saint, a Medieval saint. I collect them. Names. If I hear a good name, I have got to write it down. And it will probably crop up somewhere. … I love inventing names. I also collect unusual names, so that I can look through my notebook and choose one that suits a new character. — J. K. Rowling (Larry King Live, October 20, 2000).

Closer home I asked my author friends to opine on the issue. Judy Balan, popular for her wry, often self-deprecatory humour, is a bestselling author. Apart from the humour in her lucid writing style, her characters have the most amazing names. She said in an interview,” I like having fun with names. In my second book, my lead character is called Sophia Thilagam. … Just saying Vera Mindy Chockalingam simply doesn’t have the same punch as Mindy Kaling.” Find the full article, here.

Sujata Parashar another bestselling author with multiple books to her name, the latest addition to her brood, an anthology – That woman you see – a collection of short stories about different women, each represented by their name. She says, “I hit upon the idea of  basing the title of each story on the names of lead female protagonists and briefly give out the meanings as well. For example, the first story, titled – ‘Ganga: the pure one,’ is a story of a teenage prostitute. The second, ‘Gauri: the fair one,’ is about the theme of colour bias. I searched the net extensively to look at various meanings of a given name I had chosen for a character and subsequently picked up the most relevant ones.” The book is an attempt to showcase the different hidden layers of the modern Indian woman who is expressive and bold through nine fictitious tales and every name epitomizes the protagonist, the battle within and the challenges she faces.

So how would it matter if my Sagarika was called Sunita, Rekha or Lata? With no malice or disrespect towards those who have these names; I didn’t want my Sagarika to be like anyone I knew. A very common name immediately draws the parallel between the character and the real person. While I do want every woman to see shades of their own in Sagarika, yet I want her to be different. I didn’t want to think about the Sunita and

Lata I’ve known while creating my Sagarika. Writing is akin to playing God. You create characters, breathe life into them, make them do things, infuse feelings in them and sometimes also kill them off in the story. It allows you to get into their head, their psyche, under their skin and bring them out as true flesh and blood people. Name is the first introduction of the character. I have found that when I select names after prolonged thought and research; the characters come alive. They attain a persona and existence of their own. And they take over the reins of the story from me. They start telling, living and breathing. They aren’t the unknown or very common Jane Doe. It’s fascinating when that happens. I’ve lived with Sagarika. She became a part of me as I wrote her story; the story of her love, guilt, passion, loneliness and search. I needed to immerse myself and become Sagarika to be able to tell her story. You can do this when you choose a name after careful consideration. You’ll be spending considerable time with the character, writing the story, re-writing and editing; so pick a name that you can live with throughout the journey and beyond. I couldn’t name myself Sagarika or have a daughter to call by the name.

But she and I were destined to meet via my debut book. (Kanchana Banerjee’s debut book will be launched in July 2016 by Harper Collins.)


After spending two decades conceptualising and writing articles for companies & publications; Kanchana fulfilled her long cherished dream of writing fiction. Her first book, a contemporary relationship drama is published by Harper Collins. She lives in Gurgaon with her three boys - 17 yr old son, Archie (a beagle) and husband.

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