What’s in a name?

Give your story a personality with some imaginative names for your characters. Last week I came across a Bulstrode Whitelocke, which has a rather Dickensian feel to it and is entirely real, and it got me thinking about how authors use names.

Imaginative prose needs imaginative character names. I have a writing friend, a lawyer, who keeps a list of the unusual and sometimes unbelievable names he comes across in the course of his work.  But think of Mervyn Peake populating Gormenghast with Titus Groan, Steerpike, Prunesquallor, Flay and Lord Sepulchrave. Or the numerous Dickens novels with names so aptly suited to their profession, social status or criminal tendency: Tom Gradgrind, Martin Chuzzelwit, Edwin Drood, Uriah Heep, Daniel Quilp or Sam Pecksniff.

My favourite has to be Emily Bronte’s Heathcliffe. What’s yours?

If these names are a little too descriptive for modern tastes, it’s still important to make the name fit the character you’ve created. Considering the number of names available, it’s quite surprising how often the same names come up in published novels. There’s often a trend at work; name reflecting the ‘most popular’ lists of the time. And these lists are themselves cyclical, names coming back into fashion and enjoying the limelight once again after decades in obscurity.

Names betray the age of your characters as surely as announcement in the small ads, and it’s possible to convey the flavour of a specific era by the names you choose. It’s also easy to destroy a mood by the arrival of someone with an anachronistic name. A teenager in a story set in the 1950s wouldn’t be named Kylie, because the phenomenon that is Kylie Minogue hadn’t even been born yet. Nor is it likely that an elderly man in the 1920s would be called Wayne, or Dean.

So, for verisimilitude, choose names that fit the era of your story, but make them imaginative, memorable and fitting. Have fun.

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11 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. Indeed very interesting article, but also don’t forget to be too “on the nose” or too “clever” about things — naming someone JC or Jessie or Chris to “symbolize” Jesus Christ tends to be off-putting to the more discerning reader.

    • But it’s difficult matching the name to the character, particularly if you’ve created someone nasty. It can all get a bit cliched. I obviously need to exercise my naming muscles. 🙂

  2. It seems there are two camps: those who love creating names for their characters, and those who find it more of a chore. I’m afraid I fall into the latter category, maybe not for my main characters–that I enjoy–but for the minor ones. Sometimes I just choose whatever comes to mind first. 🙂

  3. I’m of the “Creating Names” camp for my main characters, but I’ve found that old census records are great tools for name generation. =) For example: Main Character: Riesa Grimshaw. Origination: Riesa is derived from “Theresa”, and Grimshaw is an actual family name originating from England.

    • Excellent! I really like this. I’ve got some great names in my own family history that I could press into service, but I’ve got to exercise some judgement; some sound really old-fashioned and aren’t ready to be recycled just yet. 🙂

  4. I try to ensure the names don’t sound too similar and fit with their time period. I try to give younger characters in today’s world “trendier” names, but my slightly older characters get more traditional names. Of course, I had great fun with names for my “future” culture, and I wonder if anyone will figure out how I got them…. 🙂

  5. Pingback: How to write a novel | names « Mike10613's Blog

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