“That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet”
William Shakespeare – Romeo and Juliet
Shakespeare’s suggestion that names are not important is hopelessly wrong for writers. Who hasn’t sat, staring at a blank sheet of paper, agonising over what to call a character? And if it’s your protagonist, that only makes it harder.
Occasionally a name for a character just comes to me: Meredith Hardew from my WIP A Meeting With Murder. Amy Harper and Kym Morris in The Silent Woman. (all still lying fallow!) These are names that sprang fully-formed into my consciousness as I began to write the story. But it doesn’t always work out like that. But I can spend hours, literally, agonising over the right name for a character. There are times when I actually cannot begin writing a story because I can’t seem to find the right name. Sometimes I can’t remember the names I’ve given to my characters, usually when I’m away from home and writing ‘middle’ chapters, and I have even written several thousand words with varying numbers of capital XXXXs to denote each character. It can get confusing. In these circumstances I have to write long explanations to myself of who the person is, as well as the XXXXXXs.
But I can’t always trust myself when a name does just spring into my head either. Like the time I had a main character called Ben and I needed to give him a surname. Sherman. Hmm, I thought, Ben Sherman sounds really good. It’s like those two names were meant to go together, somehow. What a great, natural-sounding name for a character, I thought. Too often I hear people moan, no one would be called that, it’s not a name anyone would really be called. I told my daughter. She rolled her eyes heavenward in what can only be described as her ‘For God’s sake, Mother!” expression. Apparently there is already someone well-known with that name. Oh well. Back to the book of baby names again.
Names can be absorbed by osmosis from society and culture and we don’t always know where they’ve come from. I usually check my friends’ names on Facebook or for authors on Amazon to be ‘on the safe side’. I had also written five chapters of my WIP before I realised that two of the main characters were named Meredith and Edith. Edith had to become Sheila. You need to keep the names quite dissimilar to avoid confusion, unless that is germane to your plot. And never feature Jack Peters and a Peter Jackson. (I’ve known it happen, and the confusion accidentally created by the author seriously impacts on the enjoyment of the story! You can’t suspend belief if you’re trying to remember who is who.)
When it came to creating character names, Dickens was a master. He used names to ridicule his characters, to reveal societal trends and attitudes, and to denote characteristics or personalities. Think of Gradgrind and M’Choakumchild in Hard Times, think of Uriah Heep, Mr Cheeryble, Squeers. He also used another technique that is still useful for writers today. He used to take names that were ordinary and just slightly change them, creating something different and yet somehow familiar. Thus Philip became Chilip.
Think of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games heroine, Katniss Everdeen, think of Margaret Attwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale – the woman Offred was the ‘property’ of Fred. Also for bizarre names it is impossible to beat Alistair Reynolds’ Pushing Ice character Chromis Pasqueflower Bowerbird. So don’t be afraid to play around with names and have fun. Maybe Isaac can become Istac; Sophie can be Phosie, Mary can become Maare, John could become Hjon, Dohn, Joon. In creating fiction, you are creating a whole world, so a few names is not much more of a stretch. Just make sure they are not the names of a successful designer.