Prompted by a recent conversation on one of the writers’ forums I follow, I thought I’d put pixels to paper and noodle a little on character names in modern fiction.
As a fan of “Round the Horne” and “The News Huddlines” I bow to no one in my admiration of Dame Osiris Gnomeclencher and Pokemon Stallone, but hey, aren’t there some weirdly-named characters out there? I except fantasy and sci-fi, of course; it’s mandatory to have other-worldly monikers in these off-piste genres! Some names in contemporary fiction, though, do seem to have been devised with the purpose of giving the eyebrows a good workout. But whatever the genre or quality of the material, the writing of a book is a gruelling task, and it would be crass of me to do the pointy finger thing at any author, especially if I haven’t read the work in question. There are blurbs in plenty, though, which throw up collectables.
Part of the trend is, I believe, a fashion thing. Florid handles in fiction were very popular after World War II, with the resurgence of romance. (Oh, how I wished I could be called Claude Duvall… In fact I did appropriate the name for many imaginary games, involving a good deal of leaping and sword-swishing.) My mother, an incurable romantic herself, lumbered the three children who followed me with a bizarre assortment between them, which included Fern, Jonquil, Leonore, Gabrielle and Swithin. Yes, Mother, guilty as charged! Later, with the kitchen sink revolution, we reacquainted ourselves with plain Janes and Joes as heroes, solid, no-nonsense, and often with a good working-class pedigree. But following that, the cult of individuality overtook the Western world, and although many writers sternly resisted names which might distract, others plunged into the can of Alphabetti Spaghetti and fashioned new names with great glee. Well, hardly surprising, with stars and celebrities throwing out the name book and condemning their innocent children to a life of signing autographs as Apple, Dweezil, Rain and Moon-unit. To add insult to injury, poor Apple will probably have to change hers anyway, to avoid copyright suits.
But I am on the side of the non-distracters, and would point out to writers that names which flow easily into the reader’s consciousness will provide fewer barriers between your fictional universe and reality. In some stories there may be room for a novelty name, but there should be a real point in dubbing someone Gervase, Eustacia or Beezo – it needs to tell the reader something in particular about this person. Or you may be tempted by the way a name rolls off the tongue – I love the sound of Hamilton Bohannon (a musician active in the 1970s), and once had a client with the brilliant title of Heaton McGuffog, but….resist! Resist!
Research is required when writing historical fiction, to avoid anachronism. At the very beginning of writing any retro story (even 1970, the year in which my current novel is set, is an era startlingly different from our own) it’s an idea to have a look at forenames popular at the time. Don’t forget that the adult characters would have been born twenty or more years prior to the action, so the top ten baby names of the year aren’t necessarily the most apt. With a good list, it’s a lot easier to fit names to the personalities who inhabit your tale.
Class and background are other considerations. Whether retro or contemporary, a name will often (though not always) say something about the wearer. There is a funny passage in one of Marian Keyes’s books in which the main character refers to her mother’s friends, who are variously called Mary, Marie, Mary-Ann, Marian, Maria and so on; a version of the Virgin Mary’s name would appear to have been mandatory for girls in the mother’s Irish village of origin. Even now, and I make no judgment here, it is probable that Kayci will hail from a less privileged background than Olivia.
Just occasionally, a character comes both fully formed and named. A beautiful psychopath in a story I wrote a while back, had to be called Christopher; both he and I knew it. But in fairness, it can often be a challenge, and I have had my share of problems. The name of the central character in “Out Late with Friends and Regrets”, for example, had to be changed two or three times before I felt it was right; it had to be a girl’s name that could be contracted into a single-syllable nickname which would reflect the metamorphosis she undergoes. I was very happy with my eventual choice, until I discovered that it was the same name/nickname as the main character in a well-established series of novels in a similar genre. One can’t avoid unwitting duplication entirely (unless you make something up, ha-ha) but this was entirely too close for comfort. A similar situation arose as I was selecting names for my two protagonists in the current book; I wrote many thousands of words in which one of the young women became known intimately to me by ‘the perfect fit’ name. Not outlandish, you understand, but neither forename nor surname was a one you come across every day. I was shocked (and not a little irritated) to be told that I had endowed my girl with the exact name of a successful children’s author, a writer unknown to me, but fortunately very familiar indeed to a well-read member of the writing group to which I belong. Needless to say, I nursed distinctly uncharitable feelings towards the kiddie-scribe in question, until the subconscious search-engine came up with a satisfactory substitute! But it was still strange, getting to know my character again after the rebranding. Isn’t it funny how our creations live so vibrantly in our minds that their names assume mystical importance?
I truly believe that appropriate character names are an important aspect of fiction writing, worth spending some trouble on. Even though, like housework, it’s an art barely noticed unless you do it badly!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s