“One of the best things about being a novelist,” said my friend Beth the other day, “must be that you get to use up all those names you couldn’t give to your kids. Or your dogs and cats.”

She’s right. Picking a name for a character is even more exciting than picking our child’s name, mainly because when you’re naming somebody in a book, you already know the person. You are the only one who knows at the outset of whether he’s an Alessandro or a Jake, whether she’s a Gwendolyn or a Bertha. And even more wonderful is the fact that people just accept whatever name you pick. Nobody says, “What kind of a crazy name is that? Why did you give him THAT name?” like they do when you’re naming a baby.

When it’s a baby, people feel entitled to having their opinions heard about whatever name you picked. My friend Diane, who named her daughter Maisie (surely one of the best names in the English language) spent the first two weeks of the child’s life politely explaining her decision to people on the phone, and then spelling it for them.

But I digress.

This is all to say that I have reached page 125 of the novel I am writing, and suddenly I realized my characters have the wrong names! Does this ever happen to you? You think you know a person well, and then it turns out they had a different name and personality altogether?

The main character was Cate until Friday when she suddenly became Annabelle, not the same kind of person at all. I don’t know why, but when she was Cate-with-a-C, she was a little bit timid, more likely to be walked over than she is now that she’s Annabelle. Before, when she acted out emotionally, the characters around her just reacted with, “Oh, stop it, Cate! You’re always so exasperating.” And now that she’s Annabelle, the people around her seem to know that she’s a little bit flamboyant and surprising.

Some of the minor characters asked for name changes, too, once Annabelle got her true name. Annabelle’s daughter, Tansy, requested something a little more…ordinary. She’s not as airy and drifty as you’d have to be to wear the name Tansy…so she’s now Sophie, and she’s much happier, thank you. Annabelle’s former lover, Dmitri–he turned into Jeremiah…and the contractor’s baby mama blossomed into a Chantelle.

Even more fun, I looked all these up on The Baby Name Wizard: Name Voyager, which you should go to right this minute and type in your own name, all of your friends’ names, and any name you’ve thought of giving your characters and all your children and dogs. It gives you in marvelous graphic detail all you need to know about the popularity of any given name from the 1890’s to the present.

You’ll learn, for instance, that the name John was in the top 10 of names through every decade until the 1990’s, when it started to slip. It’s now reached a new low of being the 20th popular name for boys in 2006. It’s one of the most fun, time-wastingly addictive web sites you’re ever going to come across…and if, like me, you happen to be writing a novel, you can totally justify being on there for hours because you’re researching your characters.  

Tell me: is naming characters (and children) fun for you, or has it been a major source of stress? And do your characters (or children!) ever insist on new names after you’ve gotten to know them better?