The naming game

Elmo Lincoln, the first screen Tarzan, was born in 1889, the year after the 'real' Tarzan's birth. He wears the rope and locket described in the book, though his headband may be there to keep his wig on.
Elmo Lincoln, the first screen Tarzan, was born in 1889, the year after the ‘real’ Tarzan’s birth. He wears the rope and locket described in the book, though his headband may be there to keep his wig on. Here Tarzan is teaching himself to read using a picture book.

I’ve talked before about character names in fiction, for example in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast and in Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. I’ve noted that certain authors are drawn to choosing significant names for their protagonists, authors such as A S Byatt in The Biographer’s Tale and in Angels & Insects. Donna Leon chose to call her truth-seeking heroine in The Jewels of Paradise Pellegrini, after the Italian name for a pilgrim, and the magizoologist Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them bears names that mark him out as a scientist (Newton) whilst also being able to transform (from larva to eft to newt) and survive in different environments (the newt, a kind of salamander, lives both in water and on land, while the Scamander is a river near ancient Troy).

Yet it appears that many authors don’t go in for universally significant or symbolic names for their leading men and women, especially when it comes to realistic novels set in a contemporary world. For example, Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child has the parents of Luke, Helen, Jane, Paul and Ben simply as David and Harriet Lovatt, and unless these names had personal significance for the author (as a difficult ‘family’ member had for Lessing’s life) I can’t see that these are anything other than what any ordinary middleclass family might choose. Again, in Patricia Highsmith’s The Two Faces of January is it apparent that Rydal Keener or the couple Chester and Colette MacFarlane have anything special about their names other than they seem typically North American? Perhaps the fact that Chester and Rydal are both derived from place names is more noteworthy than I can fathom.

But if the characters’ names neither obviously conform to the conventions of their setting nor have a personal resonance for the author (or at least one that they wish to share) do we have to fall back on significance or symbolism as guiding spirits? What do online gurus have to say about choosing the names of characters? I’ve selected three of these advisers.

“It has to suit the character’s personality, makes sense for the era and, most important, be super awesome,” writes Brian Klems on The Writer’s Digest. He listed The 7 Rules of Picking Names for Fictional Characters as suggested by mystery writer Elizabeth Sims, though you may think that some of the rules may apply more to cozy mysteries than to literary fiction (the glosses are mine).

  1. Check root meanings: if the character has a role to play in the plot, give them a significant name, but one not overt or too obvious
  2. Get your era (and setting) right: you won’t find a Beyoncé or a Kanye in a provincial French town during the Napoleonic Wars
  3. Speak them out loud: this applies particularly if you anticipate an audiobook version of your novel or maybe even a screen adaptation
  4. Manage your ‘crew’ appropriately: don’t choose cast names that can be easily confused with one another
  5. Use alliterative initials: Klems suggests the writer could “employ this strategy to call special attention to a character: Daniel Deronda, Bilbo Baggins, Ratso Rizzo, Severus Snape” — but I’d recommend caution here; anyway, alliteration doesn’t need to come at the beginning of a name
  6. Think it through: avoid overcomplicating with, say, middle names and initials as, if you’ve chosen a Mary Evans or Mike Smith, there’s more chance of it coinciding with a real person’s distinguishing names (though this is more a North American issue than a European one)
  7. Check again: this is a final call for proper research into character names to avoid any embarrassing faux pas

Lynda Schab on Women On Writing advises care with choosing forenames, citing Mary, Joseph, Adolph, Judas, Madonna and Cher as examples of words that give rise to strong preconceptions. She also suggests that difficulties can easily arise with unusual pronunciations and spellings and that a writer will give heed to these. Particularly helpful is what she says about similar sounding names: names that rhyme (Jerry and Sherry, Carrie and Larry), those that begin with the same letter (Ken, Kevin, Kelly, Karen), names that end in the same way (Mitchell, Rachel and Randall), names that simply sound alike (like Gerald and Gerard) and too many characters with the same number of syllables. Of course, all this advice applies as much to genre fiction as to mainstream novels.

Finally, The Script Lab has its own advice on naming characters, many simple common sense. Their things-to-do include choosing names that reflect personality, a role or a quality; names that are age-appropriate, that combine a common with an unusual name, and names that suit the period (which we’ve noted before). Things-to-avoid include those that are too long (though there’ll be exceptions), too weird (unless you’re writing SFF or a comic novel) and those with ‘cute’ spellings of common names.

Now, there are problems with ‘rules’, aren’t there? Being prescriptive, they assume one size fits all; there will be rebels who feel that rules are there to be broken; and we can probably think of lots of exceptions to these rules, perpetrated by established authors, which are hardly detrimental to their own work. The novels of Charles Dickens have a cast of characters who have obvious names suiting their traits but with ‘cute’ spellings; Tolkien has characters with similar names in The Lord of the Rings — Sauron and Saruman, for example — which can cause pronunciation problems; Austen’s Sense and Sensibility has family members whose names begin with a similar letter (Margaret Dashwood, Marianne Dashwood) or names that nearly rhyme (Henry and Fanny Dashwood).

I like the ideas that usually lie behind a novel, and this frequently involves the choice of names for key individuals. I don’t believe that many writers stick a pin into a telephone directory to select character names — though I’ve seen this recommended as a practice — but those names, however chosen, can tell us a lot about the figures featured, a fair amount about the author who’s chosen them, and perhaps a bit about the readers too.

Last thoughts: I can’t be the only one who largely bases their decision on whether or not to opt for a book on the back cover blurb, the synopsis that almost inevitably mentions what the key characters are called. Do the names appeal? Are they too outlandish, too clever or too contrived? On such subjective grounds are potentially worthy novels rejected! On this basis I would almost certainly have rejected a book featuring Tarzan …

Author cloud, scaled according to the frequency they appear in my book catalogue on LibraryThing
Author cloud, scaled according to the frequency they appear in my book catalogue on LibraryThing

42 thoughts on “The naming game

  1. inkbiotic

    A really interesting article. I always struggle with writing character names, so it helps to see the kind of rules that others come up with when choosing. Because I find it so tricky, my names end up taking on a significance for the character themselves. So the book I wrote recently has a character called Deirdre who is weighed down by the plainness of her name, it shapes her whole personality.

    1. I think that, like your Deirdre character, we are all to a large extent shaped by our names. The Johnny Cash song ‘A Boy Named Sue’ is perhaps one extreme, but it’s true that the more unusual one’s given name to more distinctive one becomes and the more efforts perhaps made to live up to that name. (Perhaps too that’s why ordinary-sounding names like John or Joanne get personalised by becoming Johnny or JoJo.)

      Incidentally, I think that Deirdre is a wonderful name: seen as old-fashioned now even if common many decades ago, I associate it with the tragic Irish figure of Irish legend. I wonder if your Deirdre has an unfortunate a life?

      1. inkbiotic

        Ah, she would have liked to hear your interpretation of Deirdre. Unfortunately she doesn’t find it easy to find her place in life and ends up running away to join a cult. The book is about her time there.

        Interesting point you make there about trying to live up to weird names. I’ve often thought it would be useful to have a forgettable name, so that I could get lost behind it; but like you say, people try to make their names more unusual, to stop from getting lost. (A Boy Named Sue is a fine song!)

        1. We gave our kids names which — for the time — were unusual, and though one ditched his for a less unusual (though still uncommon) handle, the other two kept theirs, one unfazed by being encumbered by a Magic Roundabout character’s name, the other amused by having her forename shared by a granddaughter of the Queen’s and by Ade Edmonson’s daughter. I like to think that they’re all pleased to stand out from the crowd and not railing against trendy parents who lumbered them with pretentious names!

  2. earthbalm

    Great post though I feel that Charles Dickens deserves a mention. I find cute spellings for common names annoying. But then, I’m a teacher and meet them in quantity everyday. 25 days to go…

    1. Yes, I wish in retrospect I’d given more than just a passing reference to Dickens here — in the third paragraph from the end — but we all have our favourite Dickensian character don’t we, whose name somehow is indivisible from who they are, and to pick on just one or two would be an injustice to the others somehow!

      Cute spellings for common names: I hate that too! But in a culture like the Welsh where the pool of traditional names is limited — I’ve lost track of the number of Sian Lloyds, Sara Davieses and Gareth Lewises I’ve taught in Welsh classrooms — I can see the temptation to customise a forename. Incidentally, good luck with these final five weeks! I assume you’re finishing at half-term? Do you have plans or are you just looking to get through your sentence cough final days?

      1. earthbalm

        Have moved to a single year class – year 1. It’s not my thing. Half term it is and I’m hoping the days pass in a blur. Apologies for missing the Dickens reference, I need to re-read the post.

  3. That was a good read Chris. I’m not sure I would have rejected Tarzan, but who can tell. Other things also affect our decisions at any given time- like who is hovering around you in the bookshop 😉

    1. My childhood was spent with Gordon Scott, Jock Mahoney and Ron Ely as celluloid Tarzans, so I was unlikely to ever be put off by the books. But, without that cultural background, would I have picked up a paperback with a back cover blurb mentioning Tarzan along with obscure names like Kerchak, Mangani, Numa, Sabor and Sheeta? I rather doubt it!

      But I agree, if my browsing style isn’t cramped then who knows what decision I’d make. 🙂

            1. earthbalm

              I went to the cinema to see it with some other Marvel-comic-mad friends when it came out. I can’t say that I remember it as being anything out of the ordinary.

  4. Naming, anything, is always the worst.

    On the other hand, each genre tends to have its own exceptions to “the rules”: Fafhrd, Lolth, Drizzt, most of the Elric characters. And many are often difficult to pronounce on purpose (several of CJ Cherryh’s aliens) or because of source material (Cherryh’s Russian trilogy & Novik’s Uprooted).

    1. I think some authors like Moorcock delight in ‘unpronouceable’ names for the sheer hell of it, only needing nerdy readers who are up for the challenge. Who’s really prepared to hazard a guess at how to say Cthulhu or any of Lovecraft’s gods, or how to attempt the consonant-rich names of Superman’s magic nemesis Mister Mxyzptlk (Miks-yez-pittle-ik, possibly) or Professor Ptthmllnsprts, the Polish academic in Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies?

  5. Lynn Love

    What a great post ! Really interesting and some great advice too. I hate unpronounceable names in fiction – in fact, I think there’s a part of me that’s been put off reading much high fantasy because of the ridiculous names ‘Blodnoth the masterful, Hiknax of the Mermidons’ … just annoying 🙂

    I have used all of the advice given by your writers over the years – avoiding several names with the same ending ( eg Nancy, Joanie, Florrie) which sounds awkward if they come too close together in the text.

    Love a ‘normal’ name for a ‘normal’ person – my current protagonist is called Neil, a normal man (or so it seems initially of course!)

    And I do like looking into the meaning of names. In my YA novel I have a character called Fyodor Krupin (Fyodor meaning ‘gift from god’, Krupin meaing ‘barley’) both names clues to his original identity.

    And Dickens did love a peculiar name – but if you’re a fan of the Horrible Histories TV programme, you’ll know Victorians gave their kids some serious weird names … Scary Looker, anyone?

    1. The Victorians and their Puritan predecessors did a great line in virtuous names, especially for their unfortunate daughters who had to bear them, and they weren’t all as innocuous as Faith, Hope or Charity! Maybe I’ll go away and research some of these for a future post …

        1. More to the point, did he live up to his name? What a moniker to impose on your child. Ah well, when you see what celebrities call their offspring these days. 🙂

          (I can’t remember what David Bowie called his son, but hasn’t he reverted to something ordinary in his occupation as a film director? He’s certainly retained Bowie’s original surname — Jones.)

          1. That’s right, he was originally Zowie Bowie, which is just awful – may as well have called him Headlamp or Starchild. Calls himself Duncan, which is about as far as you can get from the trippy, tacky glamour of his birth name. Better than Fifi Trixibelle or Peaches 🙂

            1. Seems to me, Lynn, that SFF writers describing a future world, dystopian or not, are struggling to invent names any more innovative, ridiculous even, than those we often see being bestowed on current generations in the western hemisphere.

            2. Haha! How very, very true. Though I prefer this peculiar inventiveness to the proscribed baby naming that they prefer in France – no fun at all 🙂

  6. A riveting topic for a scribbler. In my own writing experience, some names are agonised over and exhaustively researched. Some are awful puns. Wizard Leafings, for example, always fiddling with a wand or abacus. Some are very ordinary, because the extraordinary character needs underplaying. Take my latest completed book, featuring Hugh and Tyrentia. Hugh begins nondescript; Tyrentia is all her name promises.

    Then, I think that I may have gone a bit crazy on having all names in one fantasy land ending in ‘A’ for girls, and starting with ‘D’ for boys. Hugh becomes Dew. I hope it doesn’t confuse the heck out of readers.

    Less ordinary names do help create unforgettable characters, though. The great detective, Sam Holmes? Ed Scrooge? Leo instead of Aslan? Larry instead of Lancelot?

    1. Your Tyrentia character reminds me of the theory of nominative determinism whereby, consciously or subconsciously, people take on a role suggested by their name eg Payne for a dentist, Brain for a psychiatrist or Wood for a carpenter. It’s noteworthy that my predisposition to be so laid back as to be at times almost comatose may owe its cause to my parents giving me the forename initials of C A L M …

      Leo instead of Aslan? You will of course know that aslan is Turkish for ‘lion’, the equivalent of Leo, and is a common name in the Arab world — I once taught an Iranian boy with that name (though he may not necessarily have been Muslim).

      As for Lancelot, there is good reason to believe that the name derives from Medieval French l’ancelot meaning a male servant, as that is the role he initially took with ‘the Queen’ (as Guinevere is referred to for half of the poem that Lancelot first appears in). So some names do have significant meanings though we may have to dig a little bit for them.

      1. Some parents place a burden on children with naming – I mean, fancy boy with the surname of Sole being given an ‘R’ initial!

        Remember the song about the boy named Sue? Perhaps he would have risen not only to bash bullies, but to become a top advocate.

        No doubt, though, that the fictional names that rest best on the mind are those which suggest important aspects of the character before they are even revealed in the story.

        1. R Sole would indeed be an unfortunate name! Thank goodness that people can now change their names by deed poll — though that has also resulted in some truly embarrassing choices.

          Inkbiotic and I had a brief discussion above about that boy Sue — I too would hope that he would have chanelled his energies into being an advocate; but this is Middle America we’re talking about …

  7. I always fancied having twins called Xenophon and Zenobia. The writer whose names I find strange is Henry James. I know they’re meant to call up certain qualities, but Chester Goodwood? Lambert Strether? Charlotte Stant? Maggie Verver? Kate Croy? They just sound so made-up.
    By the way, your blog is determined to escape our scrutiny. Yet again it’s slipped off our Follow list and our Reader. But you won’t get rid of us that easily.

    1. If those twins were identical would they end up being collectively called Xenophobia? Hmm…


      Making up character names is a dicey business: the nature of those names can end up defining the whole work. Peake’s dramatis personae in his Gormenghast trilogy — Prunesquallor et al — by their grotesqueness give the books a quality that wouldn’t be there if upstairs and downstairs had ordinary names straight out of Downton Abbey. (At least, I don’t think so.) And vice versa.

      Henry James is an author I’ve been promising myself for some time, but those names — just sitting on this side of plausibility — sound as though they are concocted to give distinction to every individual. Is that the case?

      1. Xenophobia would be an added bonus.
        Yes, James seems to intend that the names give a feeling of character, not always in a straightforward way like “Goodwood” ( he is of course a sturdy, reliable type) but poetically too, like “Verena Tarrant”. Sometimes I think they work, sometimes not. If you’re starting off on James I’d recomend Washington Square or Portrait of a Lady. (W Square is shorter and his style does take some getting used to).

          1. I forgot to mention that we have in our books characters called Lilian Bracegirdle (you can guess what she’s like) and Frank Owlbrother., who is just as loveable as his name suggests.

  8. A few laughs here. Let me just add my vote for Terry Pratchett’s naming ability: Rincewind, Cohen the Barbarian, Nijel the Destroyer, etc. etc. But perhaps the prize winner is Monty Python’s Raymond Luxury Yacht, pronounced Throat Warbler Mangrove.

    1. Pratchett’s skill seems to be rising above the mere parodying of familiar names or compounding of disparate words to create distinctive individuals with rounded personalities. The Pythons’ strengths on the other hand were of rendering surreal the conventional attitudes of the day, with no attempt to delineate anybody really three-dimensional.

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