Saturday, 16 July 2011

The Naming of Characters

So - you have a character in your book, and they have to have a name. First names are difficult enough. I have two baby's names books in my study, both very well thumbed, one in English, one in German. Sometimes a name attaches itself to a character at once, like Jenny's name in Saving Rafael - and Rafael's - or sometimes I change it several times before I find the one that's right.

In Saving Rafael, I called the horrible Nazi family next door some name I've forgotten, then decided that wasn't right, so I flicked through various German books I possess and found the name Mingers. I fell about laughing and decided this was the one. Young and older readers have appreciated the joke, so I am vindicated. The Gestapo man who interrogates Jenny is called Brenner, which means 'burner,' because I felt this gave a sense of someone who causes pain. Germans would get that more than English-speaking readers, but Mingers is a pun that will be lost in the German version (Nicht Ohne Dich, Boje Verlag, out now). Jenny's family name is Friedemann which means 'peace man' - I felt an appropriate name for a German Quaker and his family.

Sometimes place names are good for a character - like the inadequate missionary in The Mountain of Immoderate Desires. On a visit to the White Horse of Uffington, I saw the name of a village, Fawler, and thought, yes, that's right for the man, since he collapses under pressure. Sometimes I just take names off the spines of books in my study..but in my novel of the English witchhunt, Malefice, I took all the names of characters from the 17th century Parish Records in Waltham St Lawrence, the village on which I based my fictional Whitchurch St Leonard.

Graham Greene used very common names for his characters, for fear of being sued - Brown, Grey, Smith, etc… and I have sometimes invented German names and do a websearch on them to see if they come up. If they do, I have to invent again. You can sue for libel on behalf of the dead in Germany.. People who know about English poetry will comprehend why the vile concentration camp guard in Saving Rafael is called Grendel. It's not a German name.

For other, less sensitive characters' names, I have harvested them from the plates of apartment blocks in Germany, which is what I'm doing on the picture here.

On the other hand, reality does perpetrate jokes that one would hesitate to put into fiction. Opposite the orthodontist I used to go to in Mansfield Road in Nottingham was a greengrocer's called Flower, and a florist called Onion. I think they were just one house away from each other. And would an author, apart from a comic one, name the three hairdressers in a town Sharp, Blunt, and Brittle? That was in Kendal, in the 50s and 60s. My husband had two risk assessment colleagues called Dr Hope and Dr Luck. One could go on forever, and the correspondance column of the Guardian recently did..

How do other people decide on characters' names?


Laurie said...

Fascinating. I never knew of the fact that Germans can sue on behalf of the dead - does this apply elsewhere?

Leslie Wilson said...

I don't know, but it all goes to show..

Sue Purkiss said...

I was sent to that orthodontist, too, Leslie! Obviously, he didn't do a very good job... but I wasn't an easy patient!

Leslie Wilson said...

Oh, do you remember the two shops, then?

catdownunder said...

I often have no choice - my characters inform me.
I googled one because I was puzzled by it. It was a revelation to me and provided the opening sentence.
The "hatched, matched and dispatched" columns of our paper are a useful source of surnames but these are usually only for minor characters.

Keren David said...

If I need to name a group of teenagers I look at my daughter's friend list on Facebook, to check I'm using plausible names for their age-group.

Rosalie Warren said...

My characters usually arrive in my head complete with names, often with the surname too, though I always check nowadays to make sure I'm not using the name of an ex colleague or similar. (I inadvertently did that once, or at least came very close to it, and the fictional character concerned was a not a pleasant one!)

Sue Barrow said...

I think its a bit like naming a baby. Sometimes the name you've chosen just doesn't fit the way the character looks in your head and you have to go back to trawling through the name books!

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

Naming characters is, like naming children, one of the great joys of life.

And current fashions change so quickly. In just three years of using the local playground, I'm hearing in bulk names I may have only heard the once back then.

I have a fictional character called Dylan. Two years ago I thought, that's little used but it's the name I want, and I hoped the name would become popular. Now it's as I thought it would grow to be: a commonplace. So perfect for my story.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I was once taught pottery by a Mrs Clay and I've seen a dentist called Dr Grab. In real life it fiction it seems far-fetched! Thank you so much for the lift from Charney Leslie. It was lovely driving through those lanes and the countryside