What’s in a name?

Posted: September 9, 2018 in Regarding writing
Tags: , ,

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Been a while since I did a craft based blog post so I thought I’d address an area that doesn’t seem to get lots of attention given it’s something that affects most writers.

That issue is the naming of characters. Now sure, you might write the odd story from the POV of a nameless character surviving on a deserted planet, but most of the time your protagonist will have a name, and even when she doesn’t, it’s likely the people she encounters will have names and you’ll have to come up with those names.

I don’t have kids but I know plenty of people who do, so I know the thought that goes into naming children, and you only have to look at the proliferation of baby name books and baby name websites to see that this is a huge area of interest.

Well what are we doing if not naming the children? The only difference is that, rather than having to name one or two children, we might have to name ten or twelve, or more! Now we probably don’t have nine months to think about it, and we probably won’t put the same level of deliberation into the decision process as an actual parent will, but that doesn’t mean we should just randomly pick names out of a telephone directory either.

So here’s a short list of handy hints when it comes to naming characters…

Only use a name once.

Now in the real world you meet people with the same name all the time, and the likelihood is that you work in a big office you’ll know multiple Johns and Sarahs and the like, but in the case of fiction realism goes out of the window. If you give multiple characters the same first name then you’re just going to confuse your readers, even if they’re never in the same scene.

Avoid names that sound similar.

So you’ve avoided using the same name, now you’ve got to avoid using names that’ll sound the same, or worse, look the same on the page. Think Jane and Joan and John. When most of us read books we’ll likely skim at times to some extent, and once again you’re at risk of confusing your reader. There’s a school of thought that suggests you should even avoid using names that share the same initial letter, think George and Gary. Now I once broke this rule in a (currently unpublished) novel by having a Gerald and a Gabriel, which in hindsight I really shouldn’t have done. And it isn’t just about the initial letter of a name, think about the length of the name as well. If you have names like Ben, Ian and Jim you’re again risking people getting confused.

Mix things up, vary name lengths, try to avoid names that sound or look similar, and try to use most of the letters in the alphabet if you can, and if you do have end up using certain initials more than others, at least make sure you only have one main character in the mix. If James meets Jonathan once that’s fine, if he’s having regular meetings with his boss Jim that’s going to get annoying and confusing.

Keep a note.

It’s fairly common sense I know, but try and keep a running tab in a notebook or a Word document of the names you’ve used. Not only will this avoid the possibility of you having six different Alices in your work, it will also provide a handy guide to spot if you are veering towards names that look the same. And if you are, well, it isn’t the end of the world to find and replace every instance of Ben with Reginald.

Be fashionable.

You may think naming characters is easy peasy, you’ll just buy a baby book name and randomly start choosing…except names, like clothes, are slaves to fashion, and names that are trendy today won’t necessarily have been in vogue 20 years ago.  Take me as an example, in the 1970s Paul was quite a popular name, but in the last ten years, not so much.

Take a look at this comparison of the top 10 American baby names in the 70s compared with the top 10 names during the current decade. There’s just one name that appears in both.

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Luckily there’s a ton of useful information out there on the internet to help you. That comparison above came courtesy of the US Social Security website which has a handy list of baby names going way back, and can even tell you the most popular names for a particular year in a particular state going back to 1960, and has more general lists of popular names per decade going back to the 1890s! Yes it’s US centric but you can find similar information for the UK (it’s just a little more piecemeal and less detailed).

Now this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give your character an atypical name, but at least bear in mind the impact this may have had on them growing up. Like this: “Of course these days loads of kids get called Noah, but in my day it just gave people another excuse to bully me.” See, it adds to the character.

So maybe just do it once rather than giving every character in your story an atypical moniker. And linked in with this of course is…

Historical context.

If you’re writing a medieval epic it’s unlikely that your lead characters are going to be Lady Tiffany and Lord Kanye. Again, do your research, the internet is full of lists of medieval names, Tudor names, renaissance names, civil war era names etc.

Naming round the world  

naming.jpgOf course, in this modern diverse world it’s likely some of your characters will herald from other cultures, and as with everything else, research is your friend. It’s no good giving a Muslim character a Sikh name, it’s embarrassing, offensive, and, on a more pragmatic note, suggests a certain lackadaisical attitude that’s likely to put publishers off.

Again there are loads of resources out there, and you’ll likely learn interesting things into the bargain, as an example I’m currently plotting a story that’ll have a Hungarian character in it, and I hadn’t realised that the Hungarian language is one of the few national languages in Europe to use the Eastern name order rather than the Western convention; so they go surname then given name, rather than given name, surname!

Things get complicated in some cultures, and you might still make mistakes—I know I have—but for the love of God at least give some indication you’ve tried!

Max Power, secret agent!

Having finished off her Harry Potter novels, JK Rowling now writes detective novels featuring a guy named Comoran Strike, which has to rate highly on the made up name stakes, and is something that always raises my hackles. Now of course some people do get saddled with ludicrous monikers, and yes I’m being something of a hypocrite here as I did call a character in my spy thriller/haunted house mash up Safe House Chalice Knight (in my defence it was designed to sound like a puntastic Bond girl name) but 9 times out of 10 calling your tough, no nonsense hero Jack Bastard will annoy me (and don’t get me started on the preponderance of the name Jack for tough hero types; Jack Bauer, Jack Reacher, Jack Ryan etc etc.)

Take James Bond, famous (and maybe apocryphally) the author of a book on bird watching, yes it sounds cool now with 60 odd years’ worth of hindsight, but realistically it’s a normal sounding name that’s taken on an iconic status. Compare that with Napoleon Solo from The Man From UNCLE (a name also originated by Fleming) and be honest, who are you more likely to bump into down the pub?

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Again rules are meant to be broken/there are no rules, so if you want to call your heroine Wonderland Slumber, go right ahead, but it’d better be a pulpy kinda novel, that’s all I’m saying.

Names as character traits.

Of course, sometimes you want a character’s name to evoke their actual character, or make it seem like it does before subverting our expectations. In City of Caves I named a secondary character Gareth Lamb, and he ended up being eaten by zombie vampires, almost like a lamb to the slaughter… (I’m sorry/not sorry).

And in Darker Times I had Jude who was a betrayer, Martyn who was something of a martyr, and Grace who was a serene, away with the fairies kind of person. To some degree I subverted each one of those characters (especially Grace) and the fourth character was Holly, and there was no special meaning about her name.

Names from beyond the stars.

CapturelnhAt the end of the day you can call your characters whatever you like, and this is never more true than if you’re writing fantasy of science fiction. After all, given you’re the one who created the planet Vexpar Minor, who knows better than you whether Slaar Grimlix is the Vexparian equivalent of John Smith or not, eh? Even here though, you should at the very least aim for some internal consistency where possible. If you’ve given all your Vexpaxian characters triple barrelled names that all end with an X, calling one Nigel might stand out a bit.

Of course, maybe you want Nigel to stand out?

* * *

I hope at least some of this blog’s been useful, if not, well, feel free to name your characters whatever the hell you like, they are, after all, your characters.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to start work on a series of novels featuring former exotic dancer turned nuclear physicist turned secret agent Wonderland Slumber…

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