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.