by Mary Smith
Am I the only writer who agonises over what names to give my fictional characters? I can write about someone for quite a long time before the name arrives and it may change even then as the character develops further. Maybe some parents should wait until they know their offspring’s character before they bestow a name?
Names are so important to the story and there is such a lot to bear in mind in choosing the perfect name. For a start, it has to fit the personality of the character so it wouldn’t do to call the romantic hero Reggie, would it? Humphrey doesn’t really hit the mark, either. The name also has to fit the physical description as well as the personality so Doris wouldn’t really do for a willowy blonde (apologies to willowly Doris).
There are names in books we never forget because they are just so right. Think of Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or even Harry Potter. I wonder how long it took J K Rowling to come up with his name. Dickens was a master at choosing names: Mrs Gummidge, Uriah Heep, Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim – all unforgettable and so evocative of the character.
Of course, we couldn’t use Dickens-era names now and even more ordinary names go out of fashion. We have to be careful when writing a contemporary novel, not to choose a name which was popular twenty years ago but is no longer in use today. It’s also important to be sure if it is a historical novel you haven’t chosen a name which wasn’t in use during the time period of the novel.
This was brought home to me a couple of years ago when crime writer Catriona McPherson provided a competition prize in which the winner had her name given to one of the characters in the next book. Catriona’s crime novels, which feature upper crust sleuth Dandy Gilver, are set in the 1920s. I rang her up to tell her the woman who had won the competition in the magazine was called Lynne. There was silence for a moment or two before Catriona said, a bit hesitantly: “I’m sure it will be all right.” She called me back to say she’d had to check if the name Lynne was actually in use in the year in which the next novel would be set. Fortunately for the magazine, Catriona and the competition winner, the name Lynne was just beginning to be used at that time.
What about nicknames? Should we give our characters nicknames? It’s something I’ve never done and now I’m writing this I am wondering why not? Lots of people have nicknames so it should be natural for characters in novels to have them. I love the names in Damon Runyon’s collections of short stories On Broadway. His characters are dudes, dolls, bootleggers, gangsters and drop-outs in the seamy side of New York with names such as Hymie Banjo Eyes, Widow Crumb, The Lemon Drop Kid (who always has a bag of lemon drops) and Dave the Dude.
My novel No More Mulberries is set in Afghanistan and the majority of the characters are Afghan with Muslim names. I break the rules about not having names begin with the same initials and sometimes the names are very similar – but that’s the way it is in Afghanistan. I know my chosen names fit the characters but I wonder if readers who don’t know the country and the culture feel the same.
There is plenty of advice out there about where to find names for characters – church yards (especially for older names), baby-name books and websites or the phone book. Somehow, it doesn’t seem quite right to simply choose a name from a list. How do other writers decide on names?