I was thinking about the next book as I wandered through Abney cemetery with the dogs this morning. Abney is a great place to find names, though I tend to forget them by the time I get home. (Note to self: pen and paper.)

It’s hard not to consider the large community of dead people when you walk through Abney cemetery — there are whole stories based on the date a child died, or two children, in one case six under the age of eighteen — and then a spouse, a second spouse, or parents. It’s not a lot of information but sometimes tells nearly all you need to know about a life.

Superstitiously, I imagine that conjuring up a long gone existence based on a name, some dates, perhaps an epitaph–occasionally even an address and a few relatives–pays homage to the ghost.

But it doesn’t matter whether it does or it doesn’t. Thinking about things is what matters.

In the meantime, all this thinking about names made me consider how many names I’ve used up in the course of writing six books.

  1. Edmond
  2. Daisy
  3. Piper
  4. Isaac
  5. Osbert
  6. Penn
  7. Joe
  8. Elena
  9. Davina
  10. Leonora
  11. Justin
  12. Agnes
  13. Peter
  14. Anna
  15. Dorothea
  16. Charlie
  17. Hilary
  18. Finn
  19. Reese
  20. Pell
  21. Bean
  22. Esther
  23. Birdie
  24. Dogman
  25. Lou
  26. Jack
  27. Dicken
  28. Frannie
  29. Ellen
  30. Sally
  31. Harris
  32. John Kirby
  33. Esme
  34. Bob
  35. Mona
  36. Estelle
  37. Eck
  38. Mr B
  39. Emoto Hed
  40. Lucy
  41. Luke
  42. Bernard
  43. Laura

And in the new book, there’s:

  1. Mila
  2. Gil
  3. Marieka
  4. Matthew
  5. Suzanne
  6. Gabriel
  7. Honey
  8. Catlin
  9. Jake
  10. Lydia
Fifty-three names (give or take) in all.

It looks as if ten is pretty much the average number of characters I can manage, with five at a bare minimum.

Now, class. What does this tell us about the optimum number of characters in a novel?

You, in the back, shouting ‘bugger all.’

Are correct.



13 thoughts on “Imaginary friends.

  1. Mary Galbraith 7 years ago

    Opening lines of Harriet the Spy:

    “Harriet was trying to explain to Sport how to play Town. ‘See, first you make up the name of the town. Then you write down the names of all the people who live in it. You can’t have too many or it gets too hard. I usually have twenty-five.'”

    1. Meg Rosoff 7 years ago

      I didn’t remember that opening. I keep wanting to reread HTS (I have my original copy from 1964) but it was so painful then, and of course would be 10x more so now. I loved that book…..

  2. Bazza 7 years ago

    Not sure if I said this before but the late author Richard Condon (The Manchurian Candidate etc) once suggested a register of names that authors could pick from over and again. He had a different character called Frank Heller in every one of his couple of dozen novels. He also quoted from a fictional source (The Keener’s Manual) for many of his book titles.
    Click here for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

  3. ceecee 7 years ago

    it was really lovely reading through all your characters names again. felt like meeting up with old friends.

  4. Annieye 7 years ago

    Hi Meg

    Great post. Choice of a name is so important, though, isn’t it. Do you ever change a character’s name, or do you find you just have to stick with it?

  5. jackie 7 years ago

    I have always had problems with names. My children can vouch for that. When Tom was such a tiny creature, after all that storm of birth and partly because of a family joke I called him Thomas Rainbow. He’s nearly 20 now and fortunately for me wears the name with a kind of wry ironic pride, but what a thing to do to a man! My daughter is Hannah Lily Sunshine and part of me wishes that her name was just ‘Sunshine’. ( But then I wanted to call her Berengaria but was stopped by family and friends.
    So, when it comes to characters in books they don’t have names. So far if my publishers have noticed they haven’t said anything. Names are so important. In the Seal Children there is Huw, whose real name is Euan but publisher decided Americans would struggle with that name (?), and so the children are called Morlo and Ffion. But the seal mother has no name that we as readers know. Her name is private. The children know. Euan knows. She’s a wild thing. She keeps her name to herself.
    In my new book the main character does the same for a long time. In The Snow Leopard there are no names. And in Tell Me a Dragon I fought the publishers like a dragon to not have names for each of the children. I won that battle.
    And I love your list of names. Some of the characters I have met and some I have the pleasure of looking forward to meeting and so far my favorite, well, that has to be The Dog Man, one reason being, that he too keeps his true name to himself, safe, secret.

    1. Meg Rosoff 7 years ago

      Thanks for that, Jackie. And yes, we took six weeks to name my daughter (Hercules seemed like the right name for such a long time.) Some characters do just want to keep their names to themselves — which publishers and readers often don’t understand. But that’s OK too.

  6. Berry Daines 7 years ago

    Berengaria? Growing up being called Berenice was bad enough, one teacher’s pronunciation of it rhymed with ‘furnace’. As for characters, mine are from family history researches. One of them has an e-mail address and an Ed Reardon streak.

  7. Kate 7 years ago

    My son would like to know if that’s ‘Meela’ or ‘My-la’ so he can hear it in his mind correctly when he gets to read the new one …
    Have you noticed how different Suzanne is to Susannah? I have one of the latter and could not have called her the other because it holds a totally different image in my mind.
    I did flirt with the idea of ‘Pilgrim’ because there is one back in my husband’s family – 17th century, of course.

  8. Peter Bryenton 7 years ago

    Very pleasing to see you adopting pithy Northern Albion expletives.

  9. from an anonymous student in worcester 7 years ago

    When I wrote a few of my stories, I experimented with the names Lily Grace and Ariella Rose. I thought these were unusual names so used them for my stories.
    Love the fact that you wanted to call your daughter Hercules Meg! Funny as!

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