Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Monday, 4 February 2013

What’s in a name?

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?

20 comments:

  1. I love the process of choosing names for characters, I think because names have always interested me. Sometimes the name of a character appears at exactly the same time as the idea for them (I think J K Rowling said that happened for her with Harry P) and sometimes, like you, I have to wait a while and may even change the name once I get to know the character better.

    I do think names are very culture-specific. In one American book I read the hero was called Derek. To me Derek is not a hero's name (sorry to all the Dereks out there) and it really spoilt the book!

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    1. There is something almost magical about names. In Afghanistan no man will speak the name of his sisters or wife in public. He will refer to his wife as the mother of (insert name of son). Very protective but you can imagine how it would complicate my novel if I'd stuck to that system.

      The thing about getting to know your characters better makes me wonder if parents would still give their older children the names they gave them as babies? That would be an interesting - if pointless - area of research.

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  2. Now, Mary, you've got me thinking. I don't think I'm good at names. I always feel a character OUGHT to suit a particular name but so often that doesn't happen...and I confess, I have been known to turn to the phone book for a surname (though it never feels very satisfactory)!

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    1. I'm not good at names, either, Jennifer, which is what prompted the blog post. I also feel I shouldn't give a character the same name as any of my friends, or their husbands or children, which limits choice considerably!

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  3. I love choosing names. I really feel a name can tell you a lot about the person and can have many connotations. BTW where is the image from - the one with all the names at the head of the post. I was wondering if it was available for re-use.

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    1. I think it is because I also feel a name can tell such a lot about the character I am worried about not choosing the correct names for them. As Gill pointed out earlier it can spoil the book for the reader if the name doesn't 'fit' right.
      As for the image. It was on Google Images but I can't remember where I found it. I'll have to have a look to try and find it again - if I can remember what search term I used.

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  4. Much to ponder, Mary. Names have to feel just right and sometimes I change them more than once during the course of writing a book (as Jennifer knows!). Other times they just appear from nowhere and stick - it's lovely when that happens.

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Jenny. It sounds like a few of us change our characters' names along the way. I've never really had a name appear from nowhere. Well, apart from Suzy who is in a partly-written novel but who tends to pop up from time to time wanting to appear in a short story - but I won't use her because I want her in the novel. I don't have a last name for her yet.

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  5. Fabulous post! Names are really important to me for my characters. But.....and don't send for the men in white coats! - my characters come to me fully-formed with a name, and rarely do I have to change names.

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    1. Ooh, Linda, how lucky to have your character arrive with their names attached. I wish mine did so I didn't have the messiness and frustration of trying out the names I think they should have.

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  6. I don't feel my characters are properly formed in my mind until I have the correct name for them. I've always found credits on tv programmes and films fascinating and love reading the names.

    In fact I discovered my daughter's name watching Saskia Reeves in a film.

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    1. Hi Debs, thanks for dropping in and leaving a comment. I replied but Blogger swallowed up the reply - wonder if it will reappear? I'd never thought of using film and television credits as a source of names for characters - what a great tip. Thanks for passing it on. Hope your daughter likes her name.

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  7. In my novel Fish Soup (out in April) I took a great deal of time with names. Each one has a meaning which determined their character. Cecilia - the way for the blind, Isadora - gift of Isis, Chloe - young green shoot. I had great fun researching names and the meaning of names for this novel.

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    1. That sounds a fascinating way to find names for your character, Michelle. Good luck with Fish Soup. Great title. Let us know when it comes out.

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  8. Great to see Debs abd Michelle pop up here, is it not? Thanks for taking the time, girls....:0

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    1. Yes, indeed, it's lovely to see some new visitors. Thanks for spreading the word, Linda.

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  9. Love the post, Mary. I enjoy choosing names and usually have to find the right name for main characters before I can write the story. Had more of a problem with the contemporary WIP - the hero had two other names and neither sounded right. Suddenly came up with one that suited him better and I now fel more comfortable with the character!

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  10. Thanks, Rosemary. Those right names are so important. It's interesting how the character in your contemporary WIP has tried on other names before the right one came along. I'm curious to know if you find it easier to decide on names for your Regency characters?

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  11. Fascinating post, Mary. I need to have a name for a character before I can let him or her loose in a novel. If the name isn't right, the character is constrained somehow. Changing a name can set a whole new chain of events in motion.

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    1. Thanks for dropping in, Joan, and leaving a comment, whihc confirms how important names are. I hadn't thought about a chain reaction if one name is changed but I can see it could be problematic, expecially if you are a good way through the book..

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