Thursday, 15 December 2011

N is for Names

Imagine a character called Doris. How old is she? What's her background? What clothes is she wearing? What are her shoes like? Where does she live?
Imagine a character called Bert. How old is he? What's his background? What clothes is he wearing? What are his shoes like? What is his relationship to Doris?

The chances are that you saw Doris and Bert as being elderly and not particularly well off (that's unless you live in Germany, where Doris is a much more up-market, younger name). They could be married to each other, or might be brother and sister. They live perhaps in council housing - they've certainly lived there for some time. Their clothes are conventional, sensible in colours like blue and grey. Doris might fancy wearing an orange scarf from time to time, but doesn't...

Names can be used as shorthand to signal things to the reader, such as age, class, nationality, education levels etc. You might want to play against that - a giant of a man known as Titch, for example - but you can go too far playing against type: if I read about this hairy hulking bloke called Rupert, I'd never be able to reconcile the conflicting images that are conjured up. My mind would snag on Rupert's name each time.

I'd also be wary of any name that was difficult to pronounce. I occasionally get to read student work featuring characters called things like Lan'Bxort. Again, my mind snags on that each time I read it. Another character whose name snags is Sir Leigh Teabing, chief baddie of The Da Vinci Code. Teabing? Who on earth is called Teabing? (It is, of course, an anagram of Baigent and Leigh, who wrote Holy Blood, Holy Grail and sued Dan Brown for plagiarism.) It's not unusual to hear people say that they find Russian novels hard because characters are called so many different names, depending on who they are with.

Watch out for characters with similar names - Ron, Dan, Don etc - which potentially could confuse a reader. I have a particular propensity for this and have to be ruthless at checking having gone in for Pat and Patrick in the same draft, along with George, John, Jenny, June and Justine. Now, when I've finished a novel, I write out an alphabet and put down each character's name beside the appropriate letter, starting with the main characters and working my way through to the minor ones. This ensures that no two characters have similar names. It also means that minor characters get randomly assigned names that I don't remember - at an event this summer, someone asked me about a character called Crystal and I hadn't a clue who they meant.

For practical reasons, I'd also suggest avoiding long names (a bore to keep typing out - though useful if you're running short on the word count and have a character called Mary Jo Barlow Smythe) and names ending with S, because they can get tiresome when you have to add a possessive apostrophe, or pluralise them - the Davises stole Cerys's hat.

Some writers make the names a particular feature. JK Rowling does brilliant character names, such as Rita Skeeter for the dodgy journalist, Gilderoy Lockhart for the self-admiring teacher, Crabbe and Goyle for the schoolboy thugs. Scarlett O'Hara, from Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, sounds both feisty and special from the start, in a way that Pansy O'Hara - her original name - would not have. And of course, Dickens was famous for his names, from Sir Leicester and Honoria Dedlock to Uriah Heep and Wackford Squeers.

But it depends on your writing, and your writing style which names you choose. In general, make them character appropriate and easy to write and say.


Jim Murdoch said...

I don’t make a big deal of names in my books although I do have a an idiosyncrasy—all my protagonists’ first names begin with J: Jonathan Payne, James Henry Valentine, John Milligan, John Murphy and Jennifer Wilson since they are all my proxies. The name that probably pleases me the most is one I gave to a gentleman of the road in Milligan and Murphy: Aghamore Ahern—virtually impossible to say without a little cough to clear your throat in the middle. The other good name from that book was Scrope the gravedigger—I just made that up on the spot, seemed like a good name for a gravedigger. I know some authors—Simenon for example—sweat blood over names. I can’t say I ever have. I do give some small thought to the names: Payne because he was a man in pain, Valentine because he’s man in love with himself, Milligan and Murphy because of the association with Spike Milligan and Samuel Beckett and, to be honest, I had to look up the book to see what Jen’s surname was because it’s only mentioned once in passing.

Sarah Duncan said...

But they're not all Js in the same book surely Jim? You've got some great names going on there, esp Scrope the grave digger. Very Dickensian.

Jim Murdoch said...

No, just the main characters' names begin with J. Milligan and Murphy are never called anything else but we learn in the opening couple of pages that they're both called John. All my books start on a Tuesday too by the way.

Philip C James said...

All good advice Sarah and practical both in terms of reader's retention and author's convenience. I sometimes use a placeholder string to allow the words to keep flowing and global search and replace after i've decided on the name i want. Sometimes that suggests itself after i've written more about them but it's dangerous to leave it too long otherwise the chapter reads like an exercise in cryptography.

Some names can be very simple and yet capable of becoming iconic (Bond, James Bond for example) but Dickens excelled at making them strange but memorable handles for strange but memorable characters. Modern practitioners of the art include JKR but also Pratchett though he has treated it as some sort of private joke lately!

I use a spreadsheet now to track names of characters and vital stats (both physical eg hair colour and things like roles and relations). I guess you use your beloved index cards?

I'm also thinking about whether to include Chinese and Indian characters (with an eye on the future growth markets :-)

Intriguing point about your fans remembering characters you had forgotten; you know you've succeeded when they take over ownership of the world you created!