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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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?)
- 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.