Posts Tagged how to name characters
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?