Monday, 17 October 2016

What's In a Name? - Quite a Lot When you are Writing a Children's Book - by Emma Barnes

What's in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet...

Names really shouldn't matter, should they? But actually, if you are writing a book they count for a lot. I doubt that I'm the only writer that only feels I've “got” a character when I've found the right name for them, and worries away until I do.

For Chloe and the Secret Princess Club, I didn't happen on the right name right away. When I was working on the book proposal, I thought of my main character as “Cleo”. Somehow this didn't feel quite right, and when my editor suggested “Chloe” instead, I immediately felt we'd got the right name for my character.

Chloe or Cleo?

Why? Well, my character has big dreams, but an ordinary life, and so Chloe made more sense for her than the rather exotic “Cleo”. (She does get to be a Cleo though – briefly and rather disastrously – towards the end of the book.)

Secondly, I have good associations with the name Chloe. One of my favourite picture books is Chloe and Maude by Sandra Boynton. Chloe and Maude is very much a story of friendship, and so is Chloe and the Secret Princess Club.

There was also a presenter called Chloe on Playschool – a TV show I loved as a child.

Playschool: Chloe with Brian, Humpty and Jemima

Thirdly, although I have good associations with “Chloe” I don't actually know any Chloes. On the whole, I don't like using the names of people I know well as my main characters. It gets in the way somehow.

Fourth and finally, the meaning of the name “Chloe” is green shoot – and this is perfect for my character, because first she is full of bright ideas, and second her mum is a keen gardener.

Aisha left, Eliza centre, Chloe right.  Illustrator: Monique Dong

Then there are Chloe's friends. Chloe's best friend is a British Muslim of Pakistani heritage and I found her name tricky to choose. I know the popular Muslim girls' names in my neighbourhood, but I don't really know the nuances of why particular names might be popular. After trying out several options, I chose Aisha, which is a classic name, but again not a name that I associate with anyone I know.

The third member of the club, Eliza, is Jewish. But most of the Jewish people I know don't choose especially Jewish names for their children. I chose Eliza because 1) it was a name I liked 2) I don't know anyone in real life by that name and 3) it's a bit out of the ordinary. Somehow it seemed the kind of name her parents - healthy-eating, slightly pushy professionals - might be expected to like.

Another important thing was that none of the names of the three main characters began with the same letter or sounded too similar or looked too much the same written down.

Although I didn't plan it that way, if you look at the letters of their first names – they spell ACE. 
And that seemed a nice thing too!

They weren't the only important characters in the book. Chloe has a twin brother, and he was Arthur from the start. This seemed right because Chloe's mum (like Chloe herself) is a bit of romantic, so would have loved the idea of naming her son after the famous King Arthur of Camelot.

But also, I suspect, I had another association in my head – this time with Arthur the Church Mouse, from Graham Oakley's wonderful Church Mice books. Arthur the mouse is practical, sensible and down-to-earth (and rather scathing of those people who aren't) and that's just how I saw my Arthur too!

Of course, like all children everywhere, my characters don't like their names. (No gratitude at all for the time I spent choosing them!) Part of their pleasure in their secret club is that they get to choose new secret names. Aisha becomes Araminta, Eliza is Elisabetta, while Chloe goes for Clarinda (that is until her class do a workshop on Ancient Egypt and she opts for Cleo instead).

What are your favourite character names in the books you've read?  How do you choose names for the characters you create?

Emma Barnes's book Chloe's Secret Princess Club is out now.
Find out more about Emma's books on her web-site.


Joan Lennon said...

It's a strange process, picking names, isn't it - I wander about the options in a similar way to you!

Becca McCallum said...

I remember having a discussion about character names with a friend. I was trying to come up with a suitable name and he asked why it would matter, when any name would do. Apparently he just calls characters whatever he feels like. But names are so important! They can tell you so much about a character's background/heritage/parents/ if you let them. I used the argument that my mother was called Jean, and HER mother was called Jean, and her paternal aunt was also called she was determined to call me anything but that! Her mother suggested that it would be nice to call me 'Ilean' after my (Irish) paternal grandmother (a common Scottish naming convention) and my dad thought 'Nova' would be a nice name, but in the end I was called 'Rebecca' after a very old English lady who was the first person my mother looked after when she began her nursing training...simply because she'd always thought it was a lovely name.

Some countries (Germany, I think) have stricter laws on baby names, so maybe a character born there would have a name that was used by many other people too. And if there isn't much variety in names then people can turn to nicknames to identify a specific person, leading to things like Jack of the Mill, Young Jack, Old Jack, Big Jack, etc.

Ugh, rambling. And it's nearly midnight. Um, my character names tend to swim around in my head for a while until I 'fix' them. A character doesn't feel right until I've set on a name, and I get inspiration from all over. For instance, Sparrow Jones came about because I wanted a name that suggested indomitability with an undercurrent of fragility (and in my story there was a fad for 'nature names' when Sparrow was born, so some of her classmates are Mica, Fern and Minnow). I chose Jones because an outlandish first name needed a down to earth surname, and I didn't like the sound of Sparrow Smith. Sparrow's younger sister is called Tekla, and gets called Tickles as a nickname. I got Tekla from a 1930s school story that I read years ago, and thought it was unusual enough to fit into my futuristic setting.

Emma Barnes said...

Becca, it's interesting to hear your process! Sparrow Jones is a fabulous name, easy to say and really memorable. Tekla sounds vaguely familiar...I wonder if I read the same 1930s school story?

Lynne Benton said...

Really interesting post, Emma. I do agree, names are SO important (can't believe the writer Becca mentioned who said any name would do!) I also find that while some characters come complete with their names, others I have to struggle over to find exactly the right one. I love the sound of your book, and your reasons for choosing the names for the girls (and you're right, Chloe and Cleo conjure up completely different images, even though the names look so similar.)