Friday, 25 March 2011

La-a and Other Character Names to Avoid

There's a story doing the rounds about a child called La-a. This is apparently pronounced Ladasha. It's like the scene in LA Story when Steve Martin meets Sarah Jessica Parker and she tells him her name. 'Sandy!' he exclaims with pleasure, explaining that he's fed up with people with daft first names. At which point she says it's capital S, a, n, capital D, i.

1. Top of the list of character names to avoid is weirdly spelt ones.

2. Tricky to pronounce ones comes next. I always struggle with Macon in The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler. Is it May-con or Mack-on? I was told authoritatively that Macon was an American city pronounced May-con, so it had to be that, but my American students struggle with it also. I realised after one class full of "Mack-on, I mean May-con"s we had finished the session by discussing 'him'.

3. At least Macon is short. Rumpelstiltskin is fine for a short fairy story, but imagine a whole novel featuring him. Worse, imagine typing out Rumpelstiltskin hundreds of times.

4. But sometimes a character needs a long name, in which case it's a good idea to abbreviate it. I once knew a woman called Anastasia Rodrigues. She called herself Birdie, which was charming. Rumpelstiltskin calling himself Rumpy would be less so.

5. Then there are silly names. I have met a child called Courtney Salmon, whose parents knew the pun and still went ahead with it, and there's always the boy called Sue but on the whole, silly names are to be avoided.

6. Inappropriate names. Names are often era specific and class related. There aren't many working class Ruperts, or upper class Chardonnays. My grandmother was called Maud, her sisters were Edith and Ethel, her brothers Harold and Claude, none of which are names you hear much now.

7. Which leads on to similar names. I'd advise against having Maud and Claude in the same piece of writing, and I speak as one who discovered the hard way that having characters called Jenny, George, John and Justine was a recipe for confusion.

8. For practical, writerly considerations I'd avoid names that don't pluralise easily - Tolkein ran into this problem with the party at the beginning of Lord of the Rings: when more than one member of the Proudfoot family were in the same room, did they become Proudfeet?

9. Then there are names ending with s - Davies, Thomas, Jones - unless you are very confident of your ability to use apostrophes and extra s's correctly.

Why does it matter? Because you want the reader to be absorbed into your fictional world. Anything that pulls them out of that world, even if it's only for a second or two as they ponder your punctuation, is to be avoided if you possibly can.

NEW!!! I've finally got round to organising some course dates....
How to WRITE a Novel: London 3rd May/Birmingham 7th May/
Oxford 8th May/Exeter 21st May/Bath 12th June
How to SELL a Novel: London 24th May/Exeter 4th June/


Liz Fielding said...

I always try to avoid names that end in and s, Sarah. Learned that after naming my first hero Lukas and found myself having write around the apostrophes. (It was his surname but the only one he ever used.)

I did once name a heroine Amaryllis, but she dispensed with it after the first introduction and called herself Amy.

I still sometimes find myself with a load of secondaries with similar initials and have to change them. If I'm thinking ahead, I make up a list before I start. But that is rare.

Karen said...

I recently changed a Mrs. Figgis to Mrs. Blake for that reason!

Jim Murdoch said...

And don't set your novel in Russia for Christ's sake.

Fiona said...

Freaky. I've been struggling with renaming my main character, whose name happens to be Sandy (spelled correctly). I don't know why I called her Sandy originally, that's just who she is, but now I have a raft of names ending in Y, including the hero's. Maybe I should just change it to SanDi and have it over. :)

Sarah Duncan said...

Liz, I make a list at the end, and change any similar names then. Makes it confusing sometimes if I'm talking to my editor or a reader about the characters, as they stay the original name in my head.

Figgis is a lovely name, but Blake is so much easier.

And as for the Russians, they're impossible.

Could Sandy become Alex? I'm now worrying about what the hero is called - hope it isn't Randy. Or Bandy.

Fiona said...

Sarah, Sandy could become Alex! I toyed with that. I have a minor character named Axel but that's easy enough to change.

The hero's name is Duffy. It's a nickname, but it has stuck to him like glue so I'd rather change Sandy's name than his.

womagwriter said...

Good advice! I also try to avoid characters having names starting with the same letter (especially in short stories)

Am running into trouble at the moment with my novel which is based on real historical people, and I am using their real names. Am at a point where two servants are Maria and Mary, and there's also children called Maria and Mary-Ann, not to mention two Henrys.... ugh!

Jacky said...

I taught a child called Maud the other day, and another called Sidney-Rose, another called Olive, and another called Ernest, all aged five. Ancient names for the very young. The effect was sweet.

But draw the line at Odyssey and possibly Byron, ditto. Both large and pallid and on the teenage cusp. What will happen to them, I wonder?

And oh dear, my story is set in Russia and absolutely can't be set anywhere else as it is about a child's escape from the revolution. Ideas? Jacky

Sarah Duncan said...

Jacky, you're okay with your Russian names as you use simple forms that we can all latch onto, not the complicated patronymics. Byron I like, but Odyssey??? Oh my!