Friday, 15 January 2010

What's in a Name?

I find naming my characters really hard. Somehow, I can't settle to my writing until I know their name, but until I know the character a bit better, I can't work out what they're called. It's important because we all have reactions to different names.

I have a class exercise about making good choices. The characters are called Doris and Jim and they go through various events. At the end of the exercise I ask people to describe Doris and Jim. They're elderly, usually pensioners. They live in a bungalow with a lot of china ornaments. Then I ask the students how they'd feel if the characters were called Jenny and Pete. Immediately their age drops. Now the characters have small children and they live in a terraced house. Rupert and Vanessa are older and very posh, living in a big house. Their children go to boarding school. Dolores and Jake, on the other hand - well, fill in how you see a couple called Dolores and Jake, but I bet it won't be the same as the others.

Names are powerful. If we give a character a name like Rupert, we are hinting at all sorts of background detail. There may be many dustbin men out there in real life called Rupert, but somehow it wouldn't ring true in a book. I know of a real life Marchioness called Tracey, but the name would give the wrong signals for the reader in a book.

Then there are reactions to names. Adam and Sam seem dependable sorts, Jenny and Rosie are nice people. I learned this on the first draft of Adultery for Beginners when one of the characters was called Jenny. My feedback readers said they rooted for her, and felt cheated when she turned out to be a baddie. So she became Justine in the re-write, a far more ambiguous name.

You may think that this is all stereotyping, and of course you'd be right. But as readers we can't help having an initial gut response to a name, so as writers we have to think about it. Oh, I wish I could fix my characters names in the new book I'm writing. I won't be happy until I do.

2 comments:

liz fenwick said...

I do so know what you mean...In Penderown I started with the name Ali for my younger heroine but ten pages in it wasn't right. She then became Delmelza aka Demi but the real fun came when I did a find and change all Alis...

lx

Sarah Duncan said...

Love Demelza as a name, but oh yes, the perils of global edits...