Posts Tagged character names
What’s in a name? Sometimes, a lot of agonising. A lot of mind-changing. A name in a work of fiction is never random. It hits the reader with meaning. Overtones. The sound in the reader’s mind-ear, the shape it makes on a page. Sometimes a name has associations for the writer too, associations that help us envisage the character more vividly and truthfully. Or help us empathise. Or not. Sometimes, a name outstays its welcome and needs to be changed.
That’s what we’re talking about today. My co-host is independent bookseller Peter Snell.
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BTW, if you like this subject, you might like this post on naming your characters and settings.
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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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
I’m back at Victoria Mixon’s for the second part of our weekly editor chats. Last week we hammered out plot. Today the subject is characters. We discussed techniques for developing characters, what makes a character with dignity and depth, whether to use all your research – and my dislike of what some of you call plaid and what I call tartan.
Hey, we’re all allowed unreasonable quirks. Take a highland fling over to Victoria’s blog and see what it’s all about… Thank you, Lee Carson, for the picture…
Daisy Hickman from SunnyRoomStudio has sent this question. ‘How soon, when writing in first person, does the story need to reveal the full name of the protagonist? And how do I weave it in? It always feels awkward.’
Slipping in your first-person narrator’s name is a small matter but often feels awkward. It’s logically unnecessary, since the narrator is talking to the reader directly. Of course, naming shouldn’t look like a piece of explanation for its own sake, the dreaded exposition. So writers can tie themselves in knots bringing in other characters who will intrude with a plausible reason to utter their name.
Dickens and du Maurier
Here’s how Charles Dickens handles naming in Great Expectations:
My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.
This is the opening paragraph of the entire novel. No messing there. But actually, Dickens has another reason for giving us his MC’s name so early. For much of the book Pip isn’t very likable, but every time we see the name Pip used later on, we are reminded of his child self.
At the other end of the naming spectrum is Daphne Du Maurier’s narrator in Rebecca. She doesn’t have a name at all until she marries Max and becomes Mrs de Winter. This is logical because until she marries she is a paid companion, with no status and nothing of her own and no one ever uses her name. It is also resonant– the girl has no identity, to herself or to the rest of society, until she becomes Mrs De Winter. And of course she feels like she is an impostor… I could go on.
Dickens had a good reason for giving us Pip’s name at the very start. And Du Maurier had a good one for not giving a name at all. So the reader isn’t going to feel lost or annoyed if the protagonist’s name isn’t revealed for quite some time.
Names in a first-person narrative are usually pretty peripheral anyway, unlike third person, where the name can be a profound symbol. You can get interested in a first-person character without knowing their name. We do it all the time in real life.
A terrible memory for names
How many times do you hear people say they don’t have a good memory for names? When we first meet people, we remember them more by what we connected or disagreed over. I have a friend who I first met when she was crazy for a handsome Italian guy she worked with. It was a few weeks before her name was ingrained in my brain, but I remembered every detail of her romantic plight effortlessly – and always will, even though they have married, had a daughter and divorced.
Your first connection with someone who talks to you as ‘I’ has little to do with a name. (Usually. Except for Pip. And Ishmael in Moby-Dick, who has chosen a symbolic name that tells us something about his character.)
Also, to an extent, you have a safety net. Where is the first place a reader looks once they’re enticed by your title or cover? The blurb. Most blurbs – or the Amazon version – slip in the protagonist’s name anyway. If the reader really starts to feel rudderless, they can look there. (This may seem like a cheat but it’s not a bad idea to write with an awareness of what is on the blurb. Lionel Shriver was spurred to find an extra twist in We Need To Talk About Kevin because she knew the flap copy would give away the novel’s main event. But I digress.)
- Don’t be in a panic to slip the name in. It takes as long as it takes.
- If you have a brilliant reason for doing it at the beginning, like Great Expectations and Moby-Dick, then do it. If it doesn’t naturally arise until later, don’t fret – it’s not the most important thing the reader wants to know.
- Don’t try to shoehorn in a tired scene where the character picks up the morning post and sighs that someone has misspelled their name.
- As with all kinds of back story, see if you can use the name-revealing for something else as well.
Thank you, Daisy, for a great question, and Thunderchild7 on Flickr for the picture. Let’s share some examples: first-person introductions that work brilliantly – and ones that make you cringe
Today I’m guesting over at Daisy Hickman’s SunnyRoomStudio.
Daisy is a poet and the author of Where the Heart Resides:
Timeless Wisdom of the American Prairie and a tireless explorer
of what it means to be creative – as indeed you will know from the
searching comments she often leaves here. Daisy asked me to write
a piece about names in fiction, so here we go…
The 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. They are parts of the human eye.
I sense an artistic sensibility in the world of ophthalmology, as though its members are preserving a sense of wonder about what these organs do for us…
And drop back here tomorrow for a more regular post.
This week, a picture popped into my inbox. It’s a frame from the manga graphic novel Cloud 109, the latest WIP by artist Peter Richardson and writer David Orme. Peter sent it because he’s put me and Dave into the background as a cameo.
This is something arty folk do regularly, of course; we’re forever using each other as cameos and walk-ons in our stories.
But this is only for cameos. Not main characters.
In fact, this topic has been hot all week. Mysteries writer Elizabeth Craig started it when she asked, should you write about people you know? Non-writers assume that everything we write is recycled from our own lives – but they don’t realise how much invention is added. The debate carried on on Twitter, where the consensus from writers was this: sometimes real people go into novels, but if they are to play major parts, they require a lot of tweaking. What comes out is not necessarily that similar to the raw materials that went in.
No character from real life, however remarkable, is going to be completely suitable just as they are.
And that’s just when they start off in the story. If characters are to be explored in any great depth they will probably – and should – evolve as the story goes. They may surprise you, develop a will of their own – that oft-repeated phrase ‘the characters took over’. Not only do they do what they want, they go through their own changes which you can’t necessarily predict when you start.
To use real life well in a novel, you have to allow everything to go its own way.
This doesn’t just apply to characters, but also to events.
I used to go to a critique group, and one week a lady read from her novel about a couple divorcing. There were many scenes featuring bitter arguments. Everyone agreed the characters’ distress was plain to see but following it all was difficult. We started to make suggestions that would help us find a way in – so that we could engage with the characters and why they were so upset with each other. There were suggestions to amalgamate two characters, show some of the other person’s point of view, tone down the villainous behaviour. Every comment was answered with ‘but I can’t change that, it’s what really happened’.
Really, she was writing the novel as therapy, so telling it exactly as she saw it was the point. Inviting the reader to become involved was not her purpose.
But if inviting the reader in is your purpose, you have to be prepared to change things.
You have to know the difference between real truth and dramatic truth. Dramatic truth is universal, in some ways it is about us all. Real truth is messy, overblown, particular to one situation. For instance, coincidences – in real life they happen all the time. In novels coincidences usually look like lazy storytelling. In real life, people behave in ways we will probably never understand. Real life is a terrible template for a story – it only gets away with it because we can’t turn it off.
Truth is stranger than fiction – or, if you’re a storyteller, fiction cannot be as messy and strange as truth. In a novel, the reader knows you have made up the events – therefore the events themselves are not as important as what they signify, or their part in a coherent whole. This is an absolute rule, no matter what kind of material you are basing your novel on – and I’ve helped clients make novels out of truly horrific childhoods, which you might think gave the writer a free pass for the reader’s indulgence.
If you’re basing a story or characters on real life, don’t get hung up on what really happened. You are not giving evidence for the police. When you write fiction, no matter what you are making it out of, you cross a line. Telling the real truth isn’t your job. Telling the dramatic truth is.
If you’re going to write about real life, be prepared to let it change to make a better story.