But That’s What He’s Called! Late-stage changes to a character name

When The Magpie Lord was in edits, my editor asked me (very carefully, and giving the impression of typing while positioned behind a protective surface) to change the name of one of the heroes.

This was a perfectly reasonable request. I’d made a schoolgirl error in giving the two main characters names beginning with the same phoneme.  Sounds trivial; is not. At a normal reading pace you chunk* text, rather than taking in each letter, so that you don’t so much read the name ‘Crane’ as see ‘Cr—’ and fill in the rest. Therefore, if Hero 1 is Crane and Hero 2 is Crispin (which he was), readers may actually get confused – not because they’re idiots but because that’s how reading works.

So, fair play to my editor, she was quite right. Nevertheless, being asked to change my hero’s name was unbelievably hard.

I know it’s absurd. I know these are imaginary people I made up. I know it’s a story. The fact remains that when I got that email, I stared at the screen for about five minutes, with a hollow feeling in my stomach. I actually felt sick. I went for a very long walk on my own, and spent the first half of it getting my head round the very idea of changing the name. I described the request on my book group as ‘the most invasive thing that’s happened to me since my son’s suction-assisted birth’, and I stand by that as a not-at-all-overdramatic statement. (Ahem.)

Then I got over it and renamed the character ‘Stephen’, which is a far better name for him –still with the cadence and that slightly Old England ring to it, which was what I needed, but more solid, less fragile – and now I can’t remember why I ever imagined anything else. Listen to your editor, kids, she’s always right.

Of course it’s easy for writers now. David Copperfield started life as ‘Thomas Mag’, which is so glaringly wrong it’s almost impossible to imagine. Dickens’ notes show he went through Trotfield (horsey), Trotbury (clerky), Copperboy (weirdly metal) and Copperstone (too hard) before finally hitting on Copperfield. (Victorian nerd klaxon: Dickens readers may recognize that Trot– and –stone were important sounds for the book that made their way into other major character names.)

But Dickens couldn’t write the book with Thomas Mag and change it in edits. No search and replace for him.  You had to get it right at the start, or live with it. My husband has a theory that Thomas Hardy named his characters as a shorthand reminder of their plot role — “Hmm, this guy needs to be angelic, sturdy and very English. I’ll remember that if I call him Gabriel Oak.” — and then found himself stuck with them. (Thomas Hardy fans, please address critiques of this theory to my husband. It’s nothing to do with me.)

There’s a lot to be said for doing it the old-fashioned way and getting it right at the start. Not least that I never want to change a main character’s name again.

* this is a real technical term, honest.


Ever changed a character name? Can you imagine your favourite characters called anything else?

12 replies
  1. Sue Brown
    Sue Brown says:

    I have been asked to change names in the past. I haven’t always agreed, if there was a specific reason someone was called xyz. It is like killing something very precious to me and in my head the name never changes. In Nothing Ever Happens the kids had different names, I changed them because the publisher was right, but I will never remember the current version.

  2. KJ Charles
    KJ Charles says:

    Yes, I didn’t think of that because I was lucky enough to find a better name. But if you had the perfect name in the first place and that had to change – no, I would really, really struggle with that. Sympathy.

  3. Alis
    Alis says:

    Hah. Yes, I did this in my Big Project: one of the main characters got a name change after over a decade (yeah I write slow) of being called something else. I still occasionally get her name wrong, but… it’s growing on me. Slowly, heh.

  4. Marianne McA
    Marianne McA says:

    I changed a child’s name, does that count? She was called Kate – we’ve an unusual surname, so their first names are short and commonplace – and Kate sounded to me strong and competent. At the time of her first innoculation I found, to my horror, that every other baby girl was called Kate as well. Which is fine, except our surname starts with an ‘E’ and to distinguish her from the hordes of other Kates the teachers would have had to address her as ‘Kate, E.’ at school – and I was convinced that would morph over time into ‘Katy’. (Which is a perfectly fine name, except I didn’t want her named after a girl who just laid in bed and was pleasant to people.)
    So we defaulted to her – fabulously unusual – middle name, and got her older sisters to claim a small fine each time we absentmindedly called her Kate. (She turned out to be profoundly dyslexic, with two names that no-one else knew how to spell either.)

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Yeah, naming your actual person makes altering the fictional ones pale into insignificance! I took three days to name my first child, we thought she might just end up as ‘The Blob’ forever.

  5. Jenn T.
    Jenn T. says:

    I’m SO glad you mentioned this. I remember beta’ing a book once, and there were four characters out of maybe 8? 9? that all started with the same letter. Then two characters had similar sounding names, for example something like this: Ben/Ven and I mentioned all of this needed to be given serious consideration for change. It’s like you are my spirit animal. 😀

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      You were spot on to point it out, did the author listen?

      Funny thing how authors can get hung up on a single letter. Magpie Lord draft one included, as well as Crane and Crispin, the names Crossley and Crowe. I think I have a problem.

  6. Becky Black
    Becky Black says:

    Way back in 2006 I changed the name of a major character in my NaNoWriMo novel on October 31st. It was Illyas and I suddenly thought “I am not spending November trying to decide if it should be s’ or s’s. The fact the possessive would have rhymed with “asses” was a factor too. I changed it to Illyan and haven’t regretted that once. 😀

    Then earlier this year I was close to submitting my book that’s out as Patient Z now (which also had its name changed, but let’s stick with characters) and just browsing on the internet I spotted a blurb for a book about to come out form Dreamspinner with a character named Cal Harrison, the exact same name as one of my heroes. AARRGGHHH!! If it hadn’t actually been in the m/m genre I’d have ignored it. But it’s still too small a genre for that. At least I had the choice to just change the last name, because changing his first name at that point would have been awful. In my mind he is still Harrison, and since he’s a person who would have used false names anyway, them I deal with it by deciding that the name he has in the book, Richardson, is just one of those false names.

  7. ABE
    ABE says:

    It’s a hazard of the profession – naming.

    I changed the first name of the main character after spending years with her – because during that time I also discovered it will be easier to publish without the pseudonym I had planned from the age of 14.

    Also, I thought DH objected to me using his name – turns out he doesn’t even remember saying that, and doesn’t care.

    And the character’s name – though not in my mind – was too close to mine. My good friend and writing partner pointed it out, I thought about it a lot, still like the original a bit better, and got over it.

    As to names in general, I maintain a detailed list, and make sure there are no repeats, no similar names, and no identical initials (in case I need to refer to them by their initials). With 64 named characters, a list is indispensable. (It’s a long novel, with three major parts – many of the characters don’t appear in all three parts.)

    Thank the people who invented Search and Replace for the ease with which changes can be made – as long as you remember ALL the forms of the names: first, last, nicknames, pet names, names with possessives and plurals… and allusive names their mother calls them.

    In the first novel I completed, still unpublished, my main character in a mystery was a campus cop – and I still can’t believe a reasonably well-known author whom I’d never read had an almost identical name – and the same profession. Really. Glad someone caught THAT one.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Oh, the real person making it in. I had a secondary character who made it to the end of the second draft before I remembered he had the name of a long-departed and unmissed ex boyfriend. (I considered killing him off for longer than I should have…)


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