Thwackum, Squeers and Griffiths
Back in the day, a top author – such as Henry Fielding, who died in 1754 – would enjoy giving some of his characters names like Mr Thwackum (a savage clergyman and schoolmaster) and Squire Allworthy (a man as virtuous as his name suggests.)
Charles Dickens, a century or more later, wasn’t quite as direct, but you can still hear the character suggestion come through pretty clearly in names like Ebenezer Scrooge (a miser), Uriah Heep (an unctuous sycophant), Tiny Tim (the one to generate the tears), Thomas Gradgrind (a fact-obsessed school superintendent), Wackford Squeers (a cruel headmaster), Estella (beautiful, but distant – like a star), and so on.
These days, we generally don’t do that. The problem with those names is that they hang a huge placard round the neck of the character. “Hey, I’m Allworthy. You don’t even have to think about who I am – you don’t have to scrutinise the way I talk and act and make choices – because look at this great big placard. I’m ALL-WORTHY, right? Look how great I am.”
In effect, the name compresses the space in which the character can operate – and a book without characters isn’t going to be worth all that much.
Dickens’s names aren’t quite as blatant as Henry Fielding, but the sheer improbability of a ‘Wackford Squeers’ announce the author’s intention almost as directly. The placard is smaller, but it’s still there.
The modern approach therefore tends to be sadly dull, You might have a Gradgrind-y type character, let’s say, but you’d call him or her something like Mark Pettigrew or Samantha Anderson. Your ideal name is just interesting enough to remember, but just boring enough that it’s not calling attention to itself (Jabberwocky Jones or Bianca Blanco.)
Likewise, you’ll think not just of your star players, but your team sheet as a whole. You might love the name Rhodri for a friend of your protagonist, but if you already have a Rhys, a Rob, a Rhian and a Rhydian, your reader is going to get seriously confused.
This advice so far has all been very sensible, but, but, but …
Isn’t there a halfway house, perhaps? Something that could add flavour without simply depriving the character of space in which to operate?
And the answer, surely, is yes. The trick is to add a bayleaf or two, not the whole damn kitchen cupboard. (I learned this trick from my colleague, Sarah Juckes, by the way, then realised I’d already been doing something similar, but unconsciously.)
The idea is that you choose a character’s name that refers, even in the most oblique way, to some deep-lying essence of the person. So, in Sarah’s Outside, her characters are trapped in a single, horrible room. The name Willow suggested something of the outdoors – the yearning for it, as well perhaps as the slender-but-tough whippiness of a willow stick. It’s a lovely way to encapsulate a feeling – but at the same time, the name is common enough that it doesn’t break the basic Mark Pettigrew / Samantha Anderson naming convention.
What’s more the name does make a difference. You can almost feel the energy the book gets as a result. If you doubt me, just try giving Willow the name Samantha Anderson. You’d never choose to make that switch, would you?
I used to think I don't play a lot of those games in my Welsh fiction, or at least that I did so only very sparingly. In the first book, I allowed my main character, Fiona “Fi” Griffiths, to meditate on her name:
Fi. That’s ‘if’ backwards.
Griffiths. Nice ordinary name, but two more ‘if’s lurking at the heart of it. My name, literally, is as iffy as you can get. The only solid sound, the only one you can actually hang on to, is that opening G, and it’s not to be trusted.
Elsewhere, I don’t muck around much. My other series characters are really named just to be plausibly Welsh (in most cases) and of the right approximate generation.
But when I explore more closely, I do often end up with names that carry a scent.
In my current (much-delayed) WIP, the doctor in charge of a secure psychiatric hospital is called Etta Gulleford. That is a striking name, of course. It commands attention, just as the woman in question is also striking and commanding. Is the name a bit disconcerting, perhaps? Hard to place? Probably, and if so, that fits with her character too.
The inmate in that hospital that Fiona is most interested in also has a non-standard name, Jared Coad. Again, that’s not quite so unusual it challenges the boundaries of realism. And I mostly chose it because it was plausible and yet memorable. A two-syllable name to remember.
But, thinking more about it, I think there’s more going on there too. Jared is an Old Testament biblical name. The character is a damaged warrior, but with depths of virtue. A dangerous prophet? An ancient Judaic king? Those echoes do work for the character on the page – magnificent, avenging, doomed. The splash of antiquity somehow adds a useful dimension to an otherwise very twenty-first century character.
I'll quite often change characters names as I write a draft, twisting this way and that way until I have something that feels right. That feeling comes by touch and feel: I'm not at all programmatic about it. And sometimes, to be honest, the names never quite feel right. They nag at me long after publication.
(Which brings me to a further tip, actually. Unless you are really sure of your choice of name, only use names where you can use the Find and Replace tool easily. That means avoiding a name like Jo, because it forms a part of too many ordinary words (jogging, banjo, and the like. If you use a name like Joely, you get the same kind of flavour but the Find and Replace tool will still work for you.)
I’d really love to know how you name your characters and, in particular, how you manage to add a hint of character or depth into a name that still seems like a plausible choice for the character concerned. And no, fantasy authors, you don’t get the day off. I want to know how you pick names too. Voldemort isn’t a name you’d give to a good guy, is it? I guess the “mort” part of that name is bringing hints of death, but I probably wouldn’t lend my wallet to someone whose name began “Volde” either. So, yep, SF and fantasy authors too: I want to know how you come up with names.
Don’t email to tell me. Share your thoughts in the comments below. Let's have a heated debate ...