Naming your characters and settings

le moulin 221The three chambers of fluid, lacrimal caruncle, fornix conjunctiva, canal of Schlemm, choroid, ora serrata. Where are these places? Somewhere under the sea?

No, they’re right where you are, indeed where these words are travelling. They are parts of the human eye.

I sense an artistic sensibility in the world of ophthalmic nomenclature, as though its members are preserving a sense of wonder about what these organs do for us. Next door, the brain is another grotto. It has diencephalon, fissure of Rolando, aqueduct of Sylvius, cingulate gyrus. The founding fathers of neurology were blessed with linguistic grace.

In a novel, even if your setting is a known place and realistic, each name you choose creates expectations, hints at themes and the characters’ roles.

Rebecca

Daphne Du Maurier wrote in The Rebecca Diaries how Maxim de Winter was ‘Henry’ in the first draft. She changed it, feeling ‘Henry’ didn’t live up to the troubled, vain creation she had in mind.

Of course one of the striking things about the novel is that the first-person narrator doesn’t have any name of her own at all. Du Maurier’s diaries reveal that this wasn’t deliberate. In her early drafts she couldn’t think of a name and left a blank. One day she realised it was a rather interesting challenge to write her without a first name. But what a fine instinct. It leaves us to think that the second Mrs de Winter has no name because she has no identity, only the roles that others give her.

Weird Tales

Clark Ashton Smith, who wrote for pulp magazines like Weird Tales, used to make lists of names with one or two qualities that the name suggested to him. Then when he needed a character he might pick “Gideon Balcoth” or “Alfred Misseldine” and grow the character from that germ.

le moulin 219Age

How you feel about the characters determines how you develop them. In My Memories of a Future Life, the narrator is a musician. I named her Carol, thinking of Lewis Carroll and trips to wonderland, and because it is musical without being fey. But this was completely lost on one reader, who chided me for choosing a name that suggested the character was in her fifties. This surprised me. My Carol is in her thirties. I knew, of course, that some names suggested an age. A Gladys, an Ada, a Mabel or a Flo. There have been fashionable waves of Dianas and Freyas. But Carol? I thought she was timeless. (Carols reading this, any opinions?)

I haven’t had an complaints so far about the hypnotist character. I called him Gene Winter because heredity is important in the novel, and I wanted to give him a sense of elemental coldness.

Names from the world

I approached names differently in Lifeform Three. The title came before the story, and that one idea set the vocabulary of the world – Lifeform Three is what they call a horse. I explored why that might be, and realised the people had an overzealous desire for cataloguing, an algorithm mentality because of their love of software and apps. So I gave them a vocabulary derived from computers and from the relentless positivity of brainwashing corporate-speak. When things are damaged, they are ‘undone’, and putting them right is ‘redoing’. The characters are named after their functions. Tickets is the doorman on the main gate. The others are PAF and a number – Park Asset Field Redo Bod. I got that idea from a motorway service station where every item was labelled Service Station Asset No. Hand driers, bins, doors, all homogenised under one label. Let us expunge the separate nouns and look ahead to a future of Newspeak.

And then there was the horse, the lifeform himself. In the book, he was named at random by a product sponsorship. A giant brute of seventeen hands, he was called, absurdly, Pea.

Places

Places are important too. My Memories of a Future Life takes place in a town called Vellonoweth. I spotted it as a surname in a magazine I was working on, and thought it carried a sense of wild weather and the elements running out of control. I liked the strong emphasis of the ‘no’ syllable, like a prohibition. Whatever you want to do, you can’t do it here. The town down the road is Nowethland, a sleepier suburb derived from Vellonoweth but less tempestuous.

Lifeform Three needed just one named place – The Lost Lands of Harkaway Hall. Fans of Siegfried Sassoon will recognise it as one of the horses in Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man, a world that becomes significant for the Tickets and Paftoo (aka PAF2).

Outgrowing their names

I’m working differently again with the names in Ever Rest. Some characters started with names they owned and inhabited right from the start. Others outgrew my expectations and have been rechristened. Others still do not have names at all yet. They are labels – [Millionaire] and [Manager]. I’ll sort them out later.

le moulin 218All the same

Sometimes our off-the-cuff instincts are surprisingly predictable. I’ve especially noticed this in manuscripts from other writers. They seem to have their favourite defaults. If they have a Jack, they’ll also have a Jake or a Jacqui.

This seems to happen most with minor characters, perhaps because we pluck the names from mid air as we go along.

My Memories of a Future Life had a Jerry who became very significant but was named on a whim when I thought ‘what shall I call Carol’s friend?’ Then I invented a former beau, and decided the perfect name for him was Jez. Only much later did I realise I had a confusing Jerry/Jez situation. Jerry was by then so quintessentially Jerry that he couldn’t be anything else, so reluctantly Jez became Karli. Then, darn it, I realised Carol’s other ex was Charlie. However, that looked different enough on the page, though it would have been troublesome in a radio play. (And don’t ask about the troubles I had with my audiobooks, when Gene became confused with the neighbour Jean. Lots more about making my audiobooks here.)

Names are never casual

We all grow up taking names for granted; our own names and the names of places around us. They are arbitrary and we get used to them. They are what they are. But names in novels must be given carefully. We are like those doctors, who aim to preserve mystery, wonder and respect when they name the territories of the eye and brain.
What’s in a name? Everything.

How do you name your characters and settings?

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  1. #1 by Carol Riggs on July 5, 2015 - 8:42 pm

    I hate changing names mid-stream! Usually I select them for a purpose, and am chagrined when I discover I’ve named 2 people beginning with the same letter, or some other confusing aspect as you mentioned.

    Haha, as far as the “Carol”–I believe it IS more of an older generation’s name. I was born in 1960. I’ve heard the name is making a comeback of sorts, but it’s not usually a name one hears as much these days. Even while growing up, I only had about 3 other Carols in all my school classes.

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 6, 2015 - 5:46 pm

      You’re the first here, Carol – I wondered if you’d pick up on the name challenge!
      I had one Carol in my class at school, and I now know two others who I’ve met several times in real life. But when I named my narrator, I hadn’t encountered any Carols IRL, so the name was a complete blank slate for me. Which also served my purposes well.
      Of course, if the demographic is a bit off, I could always argue that her parents were old-fashioned, or naming her after another Carol.
      But I was amused when you said you knew ‘only’ three other Carols, in the space of your school career. I didn’t know another Roz until the age of 35.🙂

      • #3 by Carol Riggs on July 6, 2015 - 6:51 pm

        Wow, 35! Yes, you have a more unusual name.😉 I named my daughter Janelle, and she didn’t encounter anyone in school with that name. I’ve met a few, but not many.

  2. #4 by libraryassociate on July 5, 2015 - 10:45 pm

    I recently purchased your book after reading a post on Notes From an Alien. I have started my novel and I am using your method. I never expected a session from you on character names and places, but Yay me!!!I feel like I just got a private lesson and didn’t have to pay a Zillion dollars!

    • #5 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 6, 2015 - 5:47 pm

      Well hello – and thanks for wending your way here! Glad you enjoyed my musings this week. Have fun with the book.

  3. #6 by acflory on July 5, 2015 - 11:38 pm

    I loved the naming of your characters in Lifeform 3 – titles create distance and provide a strong yet subtle cue that ‘here be something different’. They’re like an audible ‘show don’t tell’.

    • #7 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 6, 2015 - 5:48 pm

      Thanks, Andrea! I like your point here about the audible ‘show not tell’. You’re right; titles and names are like a musical texture, supporting the reality and mood of the world.

  4. #8 by engie2313 on July 6, 2015 - 1:08 am

    Reblogged this on Engieology.

  5. #10 by Bob J. on July 6, 2015 - 3:19 am

    Hey Roz!
    You promised me a year ago or so that you were going to address the names issue when dealing with a true story written as fiction.
    My characters are all real people but due to the nature of the material I need to change all the names.
    You mentioned you were going to address this in a second book.
    Thanks much,
    Bob J.

  6. #12 by Vesa Lehtinen on July 6, 2015 - 11:45 am

    Well, those names of ear parts are not due to artistic sensibilities but the influence of Latin in medicine but that’s beside the point…

    Personally, I am bit worried that names of foreign characters sound ridiculous. Being a Finn, I have seen rather many rather unsuitable Finnish names, aside from the usual confusion of gender and using personal names as surnames (yes, that kind of matters). In one specific example, character of honorable and capable antagonist was Lotjonen – which to the Finnish ear sounds like someone who would be more like a below-average couch potato.

    Of course, influence of names is based on the language we grew up with and various life experiences. Unfortunate, to me, Carol sounds like a name of a fashion plate / fashion victim – probably because the first time I heard it, it was a name of a brand of women’s hair dryer. Not at all fair to all the Carols in the world, of course.

    • #13 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 6, 2015 - 6:04 pm

      Hi Vesa! You’re right, of course, about medicine having a strong Latin influence, but do you not agree the names have a poetic quality? Canals, fissures, aqueducts… they suggest a landscape. Or maybe it’s just me. (BTW, it was the eye and brain, not the ear. Perhaps I’ll do ears next time.)

      More seriously, you make an excellent point about foreign names, and illustrate the pitfalls very well. I can imagine it must spoil your belief in the story to an extent. It’s a good reminder to us to be careful in languages we don’t speak.

      And thank you for your Carol contribution!

  7. #14 by mrdisvan on July 6, 2015 - 6:28 pm

    Carol Danvers is famous as the superhero Ms Marvel – and later as the new Captain Marvel. It would be a brave soul who’d venture to ask her how old she is.

  8. #16 by Traci Bold on July 7, 2015 - 12:12 am

    For me, I choose names based on how they sound, if they remind of someone (and the personality of that someone) and/or just because it came to me and stuck. In two of my stories, the names were completely changed because the writing insisted I do so. As for places, I remember places quite well and I will choose a place name based on the emotion I want to elicit from that name, whether it is my emotion or not. If it my emotion, I have to convey that emotion to the reader, and if I cannot pull out that emotion, then I have to rethink it.

    Last, like you, sometimes the place is named because of something I read or saw. When a book is really good and involved, I will remember the character names quite well such as all of the characters in J.K. Rowling’s HARRY POTTER series. I can also remember all of the character names in most Judy Blume books. As for adult novels, Stephen King characters always stays with me as an example, there are many more as well. my point is that if I remember a book well, it is because it was well written and I connected with the characters.

    • #17 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 7, 2015 - 6:33 am

      Hi Traci! I think what you’ve described there is our two most fundamental ways of choosing character names – on gut reaction or our own personal memories. And then, as you say, you can channel that into the text to make them distinctive. Thanks for stopping by.

  9. #18 by Jonathan Moore on July 7, 2015 - 1:07 pm

    Hi Roz, I always struggle with names and making them distinctive enough. Sometimes I’ve made them deliberately similar so other characters might get them mixed up, but it doesn’t help the reader. In my latest WIP I realised that I’d accidently made all four of my good guys start with the same letter. I’ve decided to stick with it, with the theory that it subconsciously makes them a team.

    My main fear is making them accidently comical or just two normal words stuck together (I once called a fantasy land Andor. “And/or?” asked my friends), or too much like someone already out there – in all my plans for the WIP I refer to the bad guy as Doom, but obviously I’ll have to change that when I actually start writing it. I think Marvel might have issues with me otherwise… assuming I actually finish this one.

    Cheers,
    Jonathan

    • #19 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 8, 2015 - 6:29 pm

      Hi Jon! Trust you to try the individual option – seeing if you can deliberately confuse the characters, or make the characters look like they belong together. Who knows, you might make it work…

      I’m sure I’ve done the accidentally comical name at times. This is why our beta readers/trusted confidantes are so very very important….

  10. #20 by Author Victoria Hodge on July 12, 2015 - 3:00 pm

    What a fascinating article! I love naming characters, and keep Behind the Name bookmarked. It’s difficult for me to write the story until I’ve got at least my main characters named. I try to go for names that convey some sense of the characters’ personality, without being cartoonish (e.g. Snidely Whiplash – one of the best villain names ever! Perfect in a cartoon, but too allegorical for a novel) I had to change my hero’s name after I’d finished my first draft, because I discovered the name was also being used for a hero in a series in the same genre. That was a wrench!
    Re: Carol — a lovely name, which was massively popular in the 50s, right up there with Linda, Deborah, Pamela, Diane…It was the Isabella – Madison – Emily – of that era!😀 It’s due for a comeback. http://www.behindthename.com/top/name/carol/united-states

    • #21 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 12, 2015 - 6:28 pm

      Hi Victoria! I hadn’t heard of Behind The Name – I shall hotfoot there!
      And what a tough decision, to change your character’s name because it would invite unfortunate comparisons. You must have had to be very strict with yourself there. Thanks for stopping by.

  11. #22 by Alexander M Zoltai on July 26, 2015 - 6:30 am

    Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Names in a novel…

    Easy?

    Perhaps for some; but, many writers could use some help.

    This re-blog from Roz Morris could be just what’s needed🙂

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