Image Credits: Most images created in Book Brush using Pixabay images. Some directly from Pixabay. Book cover images from Chapeltown Books.
Names are as important in fiction as they are to us in life. Names give us a sense of who we are. They are a major part of our identity and names can reveal so much about ourselves.
Names can indicate someone’s likely social class, whether they’re traditionalists or not, and something of their family background too. Writers can play on that to help add depth to their characterisation. Names can also indicate the genre of a book. Well, you’re not going to find the likes of Frodo Baggins turn up in a Jane Austen novel, are you?
Surnames came into their own following the Norman Conquest of 1066. Names like Cartwright, Baker, Cooper and so on came into being to reflect the jobs people did. See the link for more fascinating information on that but for historical fiction writers, this is something to bear in mind. Just when did your character’s surname exist? We might think of surnames as always having been around – it isn’t the case in fact.
Making The Name Fit For Purpose or Inventing Your Own
In one of my stories, Being Yourself from Tripping the Flash Fantastic, I name my librarian character, Jane Stephens. Fits well, I think, and that’s the point. If you name a character, that name should add something to the story and should give useful information to your reader. It should help your reader picture that character.
What a name shouldn’t do is confuse the reader in any way. Had I named my librarian character, Gertrude Smith, I would have done so. Why? Because Gertrude is an old-fashioned name, seldom used now, and a reader would have immediately thought of my character as being much older than she is in my tale.
Writers have invented names too. J.M. Barrie famously invented the name of Wendy for Peter Pan though this was based on a child’s inability to pronounce certain letters. That child sadly died young but Barrie took the name Wendy from what this child said and immortalised it.
Names from the fictional world have gone into the language and can be used as a kind of shorthand. Scrooge would conjure up an image of a miser. A Sherlock would conjure up an image of someone incredibly clever. What would you make of someone being described as Fagin-like? I’d shudder.
Finding Names to Use
For writers looking for ideas for character names there are options.
- Books of Baby Names especially if you use some from different decades as this gives you knowledge of who used what name when. Trends in names change. A writer can use that fact to help them place their character in the right setting, particularly for time. Going back to poor old Gertrude above, I would not expect to see a character like her set in any fiction from the 1950s onwards. The name has fallen out of use. My own name was popular in the late 1960s/early 1970s and is less so now. So a writer can take advantage of things like that.
- Random name generators. Yes, there really are such things. You usually get a choice of setting male or female names, sometimes pen names for yourself, first name, last name or both etc. I use random generators on a wide range of things (random questions, random nouns, random numbers even) to help trigger story ideas. The name types can be useful if you’ve got an idea for a character but need some inspiration for names. I usually find, regardless of what type of generator I use, that generating two or three things at a time is usually enough to inspire ideas.
- The Bible. Most biblical names don’t tend to date and so can be used across eras. Even names like Delilah would still be okay for use now though I grant you that Jehoshaphat fell out of favour some time ago! You would also have to be aware of associations with names too – calling a character Herod is unlikely to go down well!
- Census records – again useful for working out which names were popular and when.
- Cemeteries – it is not unknown for people to find inspiration for their character names here. My own view here would be not to use a name “directly” but to choose either a Christian name or surname from something you find here and then come up with your own thoughts for the other name you need to pick.
Useful Name Tips
One reason why the name Jehoshaphat fell out of favour is it is not the easiest to pronounce (or spell come to that!). When a reader is enjoying your story, you want them to read and keep reading. You don’t want them stumbling over names so keep them simple. They’re easier to remember that way too.
Don’t have characters with similar sounding names. A reader in a hurry will mix them up. I find it useful to ensure all of my characters, when I do name them, have names which start with different initials. You don’t want a Pat (male) and a Pat (female) in your tale.
If you’re using a name which could be male or female, make it clear early on in your story which applies. There are various ways to do that. For example if my Sam character was a bloke, I could have a scene early on where he is sitting in the barber’s chair. That implies he has to be a guy.
The important thing is to avoid confusing your reader. They will stop reading. They probably won’t be that keen on reading other work from you either! Why does gender matter here? Because, again, you don’t want to “throw” your reader. They want to conjure up in their imaginations who your character X is likely to be and again if you send them, however unintentionally, down the wrong path, they will be put off your stories.
I would add here that gender is not the most important aspect of any characterisation. It is what the character says, does, and their attitudes which matter far more but to get that initial picture in your head of your character, readers need basic level information such as gender to help them form that picture.
It is the writer’s job to give the right clues and a reader would understandably expect the author to “know their people” well enough to convey them across in text well enough for others to “get”.
For fantasy/sci-fi writers where strange names would be useful, just make them easy to pronounce. I have a character in Losing Myself from Tripping the Flash Fantastic who is called Graxia. Definitely not a human name. It implies a strange world. It is easy to say! What you don’t want is someone called Graxxvhpyl – how on earth would you say that (and as we read, albeit to ourselves, we are still mentally saying the words we’re reading).
Names then can be a useful tool for a writer to convey information about their character without using up too much of their word count. Naturally flash fiction writers make the most of that! But sometimes I choose not to name a character at all. For my ghost stories for example, I’ve often not named the character. They’re more scary as an “it”.
And sometimes it is what my character does that matters far more than what their name is so again I won’t set a name. But when I want to stress someone’s social background then choosing the right name is my first port of call to do just that.
Names matter in fiction. What matters even more is how the writer chooses to use them.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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