Friday, 22 September 2017

The Naming of Characters, by Dan Metcalf

The naming of characters, as TS Eliot almost said, is a serious matter. Characters demand to be named correctly and aptly. Anyone who has had children knows that the agony over choosing a name for your sprog starts shortly after conception and continues until shortly after labour – or longer. This process takes a mere nine months of course, but authors have it much harder. Novels can take years to write, even longer to plan and conceive, so the poor writer is left grappling with monikers for the whole time.

Writing manuals will tell you how to name your creation – if it is a strong character, give them a strong name. If they are weak, name them so. A baby is a cinch to name in comparison to your character; you can give them any old name, as you have no idea what sort of person they will turn into. Your literary creation will usually come with strengths and flaws already built in, so their name will have to reflect that.

Authors take different routes to naming. The writers of the film Witness needed Harrison Ford's character to be a straight down the line, no nonsense hero, and so named him simply John Book, the least amount of syllables possible. Charles Dickens preferred onomatopoeic monikers like Mr Bumble or Ebenezer Scrooge. George RR Martin skillfully crafts names never before heard in the world for his Game of Thrones series, although I have since met several of his creations on school visits; two Aryas, a Sansa and at least one Khalesi. There is a school of thought that says you should pick the most down-to-earth name available in order for your audience to project themselves onto your character. This certainly worked for Ian Fleming, who picked the most boring name he could find from a book about birdspotting – James Bond.

My own forays into fiction have provided hours of joy/pain when naming the people on the page. My first, unpublished, novel was littered with names I had noted down in my journeys driving around Wiltshire and the surrounding areas. I came across place names that screamed 'WRITE ME!'. Characters included Ashton Kenyes (near Swindon), Frampton Cotterell (near Bristol) and Sandy Lane (near Chippenham). After that I wrote the story Pyro (which I'm currently posting on Wattpad as a little experiment) and named my characters with the help of baby name websites. Aide, the protagonist, apparently means 'fire'. Kenver, his dad, means 'chief'. Rainer, the antagonist, means 'strong army' while the town in which they reside, Port Tanow, is the Cornish for 'fire'.

Lately I have leaned towards aliteration with Lottie Lipton and Jamie Jones, but in my current book Codebusters, I dived into the internet to find apt names for my gaggle of geeks. Their surnames are Hilbert, Zhang, Babbage, Turing and Newton. Anyone spot the theme? Anyone?

Ten points to Hufflepuff if you identified them as famous mathematicians. And as the book is a nod to adventure books like those of Enid Blyton's, it only seemed fitting that their headteacher is named Mr Kirrin, after the original Famous Five.

How do you name your characters? Met any other schoolkids with amazing handles? Let me know in the comments.


Mystica said...

Very interesting post.

Dan Metcalf said...


Rowena House said...

I've heard advice that it's best to avoid repeating the first letter in names or risk confusing some readers (which I agree is a problem when listening to audio books, though less so in print). Also there's meant to be a tendency for writers to favour names beginning with M, which I studiously avoided for The Goose Road, but happily forgot to worry about for latest WIP. One character still languishing in a dusty Word file on an old PC gloried in the name Grgur (Slavic version of Gregory). Lord knows how it should be pronounced but I love the look of it on the page.