Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Names, Names, Names by Lynne Benton

I was interested in Emma Barnes’s blog earlier this month, about the problems of having the same name as other writers who may write in completely different genres.  When she was born her parents couldn’t possibly have foreseen this problem!

As writers we can choose names for our characters, though the criteria are not necessarily the same as those we use when choosing the names for our children.

When we name our own children, we have to consider so many things: Will it suit them?  Will it give rise to unfortunate nicknames or initials?  What sort of person do we think/hope they may become?  Should we name them after someone we know?  Will they spend their schooldays being teased about their name?  Not all children want to stand out from the crowd – many, if not most, want to blend in – so while a child with a very unusual name may like it, he is just as likely to loathe it, at least while young, even if when he grows up he decides he likes it after all.  Alternatively he may change it as soon as he is old enough.  Celebrities are notorious for giving their children fantastic, and sometimes unfortunate, names, such as Apple, Blue and North (West).  Will all of these keep their given names into adulthood?

When inventing characters for our books, however, we don’t need to worry about these problems – unless the character’s feeling about his name is an important part of the story.  Many children’s books have characters with very unconventional names, such as:

Toseland (Tolly) in "The Children of Green Knowe" by Lucy M Boston

                       Beezus in "Beezus and Ramona" by Beverley Cleary

                                                                        and Owl in "A Girl Called Owl" by Amy Wilson

This is not necessarily a modern trend - how many girls have you met called Scout?  ("To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee)
Or Tyke?  ("The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler" by Gene Kemp)
 Names like these will hopefully ensure that the character will stick in the reader’s mind and be remembered afterwards.  Which is what every writer wants.

Alternatively, some writers like their main character to have a fairly ordinary name, so that there will be many of their child readers who share the same name and may feel “this is a story about ME!”  Anne of Green Gables leaps to mind, by L.M.Montgomery (though Anne always wished she’d been called Cordelia!)

                                   There is also Sophie from Roald Dahl's "BFG"

and of course, the very ordinary-sounding but now anything-but-ordinary Harry Potter by J.K.Rowling.

Sometimes characters seem to name themselves, almost without the writer having any say in the matter.  One story I wrote didn’t gel until I changed the name I’d given the character (Paul) to the name he wanted to be called (Ben).  After that it flowed.  Very strange.

I did hear a story about a well-known crime writer who, giving a talk about writing crime novels, said she had given a nasty character in one book the same name as her grandchild, and was surprised that the child's mother was not happy about it.  When someone in the audience suggested that the writer could have changed her character’s name, she said, “Oh no, I couldn’t do that!”  Hmm.  There are some names that are definitely out of order, especially those of your nearest and dearest – unless, of course, your character is wonderful in every way!

I have many books of Baby Names, all slightly different, and when I’m writing a book I often go through them searching for a name that feels just right for a particular character.   
Some of these Name books give the origins of names, which is extremely useful, especially for historical novels.  At the moment I’m in search of more Roman names for the final book in my Roman trilogy, having already used up the most likely ones in the first two books.  I also like each character’s name to begin with a different letter, especially if the names are a bit unfamiliar, to avoid the reader forgetting which character is which, so I can’t have both Marcus and Magnus, for example, because they look too similar on the page.   And it certainly wouldn’t do to have a Roman matron with a name not used until the 18th century.  Someone would be bound to notice and complain!

It has been said (by Shakespeare, no less!) that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.  But when I discovered that Scarlett, the heroine of “Gone with the Wind, was originally going to be called Pansy, I wasn't quite so sure…


Hilary Hawkes said...

Interesting how names suggest things to us and sometimes different things to different people. I wonder how many authors have to change a character's name at some point in order for the story to gel. I expect it's common thing. I didn't know that about Scarlett originally being Pansy in Gone with the Wind.

Susan Price said...

Oh, names are always such a problem! You have to take into account the changing popularity of names through history and their changing pronunciation, the sound of the name and what it suggests about the character and whether it fits with the other names in the book. Not a good idea to give two characters similiar, such as Mat and Pat, or names that begin with the same letters, such as Charles and Charmian.

In my research folder I have files that are nothing but lists of names: Viking names (which differed not only in different centuries but between, say, Norway and Denmark) and lists of 16th century names.

Luckily, when you do hit on the right name, you know it.

Sue Purkiss said...

Yes, it does get tricky. Yesterday I found myself hunting down French names for horses...

Penny Dolan said...

There's a music to names, I think,and Pansy is definitely softer to say than Scarlett. Not sure that Pansy, with all the blowsy and slyly devious humility of those large, lazy pansies that appear in boxes quite soon, ever had the spark and energy needed for Scarlett.

Sometimes the name is there at the start, and sometimes you just have to write on with a "place-holder" name, knowing the right name will appear in your head sometime along the way.

Nice post, Lynne.

Enid Richemont said...

There was a girl at my school called Edna, who was a psychological, not physical, bully, and since then, I have been unable to accept any Edna, however gentle, talented, interesting. Also, if someone mis-calls me 'Edna', I am illogically offended. I can still remember her bully's face - dark hair, square and somehow muscular. Wonder if she improved with age?

Joan Lennon said...

It's weird, isn't it? Sometimes a character walks into your brain ready-named, and sometimes months go by with a character stuck with the name X. (In one of my books, there was a character called, in the final version, Monsieur X. He had a proper name too, though.)

Lynne Benton said...

Thanks for your comments, folks. I am endlessly fascinated by names, and so, it appears, are you!