For me, the first time a vague plot idea begins to quicken into the real possibility of a story is when I start getting the names of my principal characters. Occasionally, names are the first things that spring to mind, rather than plot, and so things feel a little different. But more usually, it’s the basic plot that bursts on me first, and the names come after. Before them, things seem abstract, even when the plot is beginning to take some sort of shape. It’s as if the story could happen to anyone, like an urban myth or a fairytale where no-one is named, but exists as a function, a common noun: ‘the king’; ‘the hitchhiker’; ‘the witch’ and so forth. Afterwards, though, everything becomes more personal, more real; you might have had a vague idea of your characters, of their basic personality, even of their appearance: but naming them makes them spring fully into life. Also, the plot comes sharply into focus, because at its heart what plot really is of course is the interaction between characters, good and bad.
So it’s an important thing, this name game. It’s really worthwhile spending a bit of time and thought on it (as well as being fun!) There are times when the names just jump into my mind—other times when I labour over them, consulting books of baby names, looking up relevant lists of names on the Internet, thinking about all the various people I know, scanning newspapers and magazines.
I think carefully about appropriate names for my characters, partly because names conjure up an impression of a person in a book, just as they do in real life; we tend to have an idea about what people might be like, based on their names, before we even meet them in person. This is based on our associating the name with people we know, even with ourselves; there’s a childishly instinctive part of us that automatically thinks, ‘Oh, a Sophie or a David or a Maria or a Jose or take-your-pick is like this or that’, and it can be disconcerting to meet someone who doesn’t at all conform to your idea of those names.