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).
- 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
- Get your era (and setting) right: you won’t find a Beyoncé or a Kanye in a provincial French town during the Napoleonic Wars
- Speak them out loud: this applies particularly if you anticipate an audiobook version of your novel or maybe even a screen adaptation
- Manage your ‘crew’ appropriately: don’t choose cast names that can be easily confused with one another
- 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
- 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)
- 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 …