All posts by rosalineanne

Choosing Names

I am about to start writing my next novel. In fact, I have been ‘about to start’ it for some time now. Much of the preliminary work has been done. I have the skeleton of a story, a setting, and a handful of characters. But, as yet, none of these characters has a name. Therefore, my next task – which has to be done before I can even think about putting pencil to paper (or fingers to keyboard) – is to name them. And what an absorbing task this is proving to be. Totally necessary, you understand, and in no way to be confused with procrastination!

Choosing names for your characters is very like the process of choosing names for your children – except that you have to choose surnames for them as well. You draw up lists of possibilities. Sensible names to begin with, then ridiculous ones for a bit of light relief. With your children, there’s no rush; there’s plenty of time to arrive at a decision. Eventually a mutually agreed shortlist is arrived at. Then the baby is born, and all the dithering has to be dispensed with. And, surprisingly, your child, once it has been assigned its name, instantly ‘becomes’ that person. Job done.

In my novels to date, I found that the same was true with my main characters. Once named, and the writing had begun, they became ‘real’ and it would have been hard to change their names thereafter. (This is less so with minor characters.)

That’s why it’s important to get them right in the first instance.

With fictional characters, however, there are additional considerations to be taken into account. For example:

  1. It’s probably not a good idea to use the names of members of your family or close friends. Many of them will be convinced that they are in your novel come what may. It will be harder to deny this if a character has their name.
  2. Don’t use a name that you’ve used before in another novel. There’s no law against this but it’s not a good idea. You wouldn’t give two of your children the same name, would you? Or maybe you would. Some people do name their children after themselves but this has always struck me as a.) lacking in imagination and/or b.) somewhat self-regarding. Not to mention confusing.
  3. Don’t have names that are too alike, or too many that begin with the same letter. Think about your readers. If they can get confused, they will, so don’t give them this excuse. In Clad in Armour of Radiant White I started out with too many names beginning with ‘J’. When this was pointed out to me I changed one of them from Julia to Angela. She was a very minor character so it was painless. But then – breaking the rules here – there are two Michaels. I thought long and hard about doing this. In real life, of course, there are lots of people with the same names. But fiction isn’t real life. Care is needed. I hope I handled this effectively.
  4. Other problems only become apparent once you have started writing. The names you have chosen exist primarily as words on a page and are therefore visual as well as being audible in the head of the reader. In my novel, The End of the Road, three of my main characters were called Jane, Ian and Fran. Sound wise these are all different, but on the page they look quite similar – all containing the letters ‘an’. When I realised this – about halfway through writing it – I decided to change Ian to Neil. Easy to do on a computer. ‘Change Ian to Neil’ I instructed my word processor, and it did. It was only in the later stages of editing that I noticed how over-conscientious it had been. Solihull’s pedestrianised high street had become ‘pedestrNeilised; an Indian takeaway had become an IndNeil takeaway; and someone’s valiant effort was now – yes, you’ve guessed it – a valNeilt one!
  5.  Try for some measure of originality. Probably impossible, but at least try to avoid names that you know crop up frequently in other novels. (Kate, for example?)
  6. Names need to be suitable. Often they are suggestive of certain times, ages, class, etc.

[When I was a teenager, we acquired a black kitten that came to us via my sister’s English teacher. To my great delight he already had a name – Tarquin! An unusual name for a cat anywhere, but especially so for one who was destined to spend his life prowling around our Northern working class neighbourhood.

‘What’s its name?’ people would ask.

‘Tarquin,’ I would reply, knowing full well that what they were hearing had a different spelling in their heads. Tar-kwin. (Not to be confused with Tarka – who was an otter.)

I later learned that Tarquin was the black-hearted villain who raped Lucrece in Shakespeare’s poem of that name. By then, however, our Tarquin had been neutered and thus rendered incapable of emulating his namesake in this respect.]

So you can see that this allocating of names, as well as being an absorbing task, is a complicated one too. And, as I’m going to have to live with these characters for some time, I need to be happy with my choices. But I’m sure I will have christened them all soon. And once I have, then both they and I will be ready to go.






Sequels, series, serials, soaps

We all love a sequel, don’t we? As readers – and viewers – we get so involved with fictional characters and their stories that we are reluctant to part company with them once a book – or a programme – is finished. We want to know what happens to them next . . . and then next after that, and so on. Even better than a sequel then, is a series (not to mention the bliss of the box set), and ultimately a never-ending serial. Which is why TV (and radio) soaps are so popular. We can turn on to, or tune into, them several times a week, every week, so that they become part of our lives for ever.

Coronation Street, EastEnders, Home and Away, The Archers. Yes – you’ve guessed. These are my soaps of choice. And oh how I love them! And I don’t mind owning up to this. But why do I use the words ‘owning up’ as if they were a guilty pleasure? As if they were a lesser form of artistic and cultural engagement? I always find it amusing when people say that they never watch or listen to soaps yet at the same time seem to be well up to date with the goings-on in Ambridge and/or Albert Square. They just ‘happen to be in the room’ when some other member of the family is watching! I happen to think that when soap operas are on top form they are excellent; and when they are not so good there is much pleasure to be derived from their inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies. And, on a more writerly level, as an author there is much to be gained from paying attention to the techniques of their narrative successes and failures.

And it seems to be the same with books: lots of readers like and want sequels. This goes all the way back to childhood. Think of all those series – all those Enid Blytons; all those Chalet School books, (back in the ‘olden days’); the Harry Potter books, just to name a few. Of course, there are sound commercial reasons for authors to write, and publishers to publish, series. You hook your readers, reel them in and then keep feeding their appetite for more of the same. Addiction is the aim. In the adult sphere, crime fiction, for example, flourishes in this way.

Sometimes this commercial imperative extends to publishers commissioning writers to write ‘sequels’ and ‘pre-quels’ to much loved classics long after their ‘proper’ authors have died. (Pause for a cynical moment here.) And sometimes, such a lot of hype is generated that people lose all perspective. We saw this recently with people queueing outside book shops waiting for the midnight release of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman. Why, for heaven’s sake? OK, people camp and queue outside shops when there are sales on but at least there is a logic to that – heavily discounted products are limited and if you want them you have to be there early. Go Set A Watchman, however, is not a limited edition, neither is there any danger of not being able to get one’s hands on a copy; there are thousands and thousands of them on display everywhere you turn at the moment. So why this seeming inability to wait until morning? Were these people intent on staying up all night to devour it instantly? I doubt it.

The answer (but only in part) seems to be that people love the idea of a sequel so much that they just can’t wait! (The fact that Go Set A Watchman isn’t really a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird is another issue.)

Still, as long as quality is maintained, there is nothing wrong with this reading preference. But perhaps we should have a balanced approach here. Enjoy our series, soaps, etc. but not to the exclusion of other forms. ‘As well as’ and not ‘instead of’.

So this is how I like to organise my own reading and viewing. But what about my writing? Well, I’ve noticed that many of the comments – posted on Amazon and expressed to me personally – from readers of my novel, Clad In Armour Of Radiant White, mention a wish for a sequel. And the last sentences of the book do hint at possibilities ahead for Ellen, my main character. But it’s no use asking me what does actually happen next because I haven’t a clue. Neither do I have any desire to find out. If I’d had a sequel – or a trilogy even – in mind from the beginning, then that would be another matter. But to graft one on now has no appeal.

I am reminded of a Guardian Book Club session I attended, many years ago now, on Peter Carey’s 1988 Booker Prize winning novel, Oscar and Lucinda. He was in attendance and was asked by a member of the audience whether he ever wondered what had happened to one particular character in the book (Wardley-Fish by name). Without hesitation, he answered an emphatic no, leaving us in no doubt that he neither knew nor cared about the fate of the fictional Wardley-Fish. And a murmur of disapproval at such a seemingly callous response rippled around the room. Sadly, there would be no sequel here!

Perhaps, for some writers, their job is to create characters that ‘stay with’ their readers in their own imaginations rather than in further volumes?