How Does a Best-Selling Author Name Her Characters?

From a New York Times story by Elisabeth Egan headlined “How Does a Best-Selling Author Name Her Characters?”:

Lisa Jewell was walking her dog near her home in London when she caught a glimpse of a man standing at a bay window inside a scruffy stucco building. Suddenly she knew she wanted to write about him — or a character inspired by him — in her 21st book.

The man was “utterly nondescript,” the suspense novelist said in a phone interview. He could have been 40 years old or he could have been 60. “I could see that his apartment had no softness to it, nothing on the walls,” Jewell explained. “For whatever reason, there was something that just suggested all sorts of dark stories and secrets I wanted to uncover.”

As Jewell continued on her way, a name popped into her head: Walter. Not long after, a surname followed. “I thought, I’ve got him,” Jewell said. “He’s Walter Fair.” She already had a few ideas brewing for the novel that would become her latest best seller, “None of This Is True.” But Walter Fair was, as she put it, “the key that opened the last door” to the rest of the story. Four months later, she completed a rough first draft.

A name won’t necessarily serve as a springboard to inspiration, but Jewell always puts a lot of stock in the christening of characters. She said, “It’s almost the same level of attention to detail as when you name your own child.” She prefers a literary-sounding option to a popular one — for instance, she said, “I don’t like to use commonplace names like Sarah or Mike.” Jewell prefers one-syllable surnames; and within that category, she admits to a particular weakness for animal-themed monikers like “Fox,” “Wolf” and “Lamb.

When it comes to families, Jewell tries to strike a balance between complementary and matchy. “I love naming characters’ children,” she said. “You have to name them in a way that parents would name a group of siblings.”

Does Jewell ever forget the names of characters from earlier books? “Subsidiary ones, yes,” she admitted. But there’s usually a cast of five or six central players in each of her novels, and each is, as she put it, “like a friend I’ve known for many years.”

Despite her strong feelings on this subject, Jewell is willing to offer naming rights for a good cause. In the acknowledgments section of “None of This Is True,” she explains how the name of a main character’s friend, Giovanni, was provided by the winner of an auction to raise funds for the charity Young Lives vs Cancer. Jewell estimates that Giovanni is the eighth name she’s donated to this particular group. What would she do if she received one she didn’t like? “I tend to have to sort of shoehorn them in somehow,” she said.

Elisabeth Egan is an editor at the Book Review and the author of “A Window Opens.”

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