THE NAME GAME: GETTING CHARACTERS RIGHT
“I’ve rejected possible names before, because they have sounded ‘made up’.”
Complex plots, twists no one can see coming, deep psychological insight…all these things come easy to a writer compared to the one thing that many seem to struggle with: naming characters.
They must seem real, suit the ‘person’, and give little clues to the reader about them, whether the clues involve their personality or their background. For example, in Behind Closed Doors there is a wonderful moment when B.A. Paris’s character explains why he is called Jack Angel.
Names must ‘look right’ somehow when written on the page, and I often say them, too, to see how they feel in the mouth and sound when spoken. It might sound silly, but I’ve rejected possible names before, because they have sounded ‘made up’.
Some authors are big fans of names starting with the same letters or sounds. The results are definitely attractive, memorable, and sound good said aloud, but to me this always feel a little ‘comic book’. Think Peter Parker, Lois Lane, Clark Kent.
Others choose names because of what the names mean (for example, Barbara means ‘beautiful stranger’, apparently).
Charles Dickens was possibly the greatest master of character names, choosing ones which summed them beautifully – and if he couldn’t find a real one, he would make one up. Estella in Great Expectations is beautiful, cold, distant, just as the star-like moniker suggests. Bentley Drummel is a bully who pummels people and drums his opinions home forcefully, and doesn’t his name push that point home? Uriah Heep, from the novel David Copperfield, is a name which seems to tumble from the mouth, mimicking the ‘I’m so very humble’ bowing and scraping act of the character, while all the time he manipulates.
Although I don’t take it as far as Dickens, I certainly want names that suit my characters. Adam Bourne, the main character in Flowers For The Dead, slotted together very nicely. Adam is the world’s first man, and it seemed perfect for someone so alone to be named thus. In some ways he is as innocent as a child, as a new born almost, despite the horrors he inflicts on people, and so Bourne came into being.
I wanted something traditional and simple for Adam’s latest victim, who was born into a happy family. As I was casting round for something, I spotted a byline in a newspaper by Laura someone or other. I grabbed on to Laura, as it instantly felt ‘right’. But where did Weir come from for her last name? For me, it is spot on for someone with such a turbulent past and present, for someone with so many emotions inside her like a raging torrent threatening to drown her.
Mike seemed a solid, reliable name for a cop, but what about the last name? Again, I wanted something that would suit his personality. Something with gravitas to show the hidden strength beneath the pudgy tummy. But what? King was the obvious option, but it was too awkward when I said it aloud. Mike King. Quite nice to look at, but clunky to say. So I opted for Bishop. He is, after all, a very good guy, as the ecclesiastical connection would imply.
Adam’s gran was almost impossible to name, though. I kept changing it all the way through. At one point I rather fancied Ava – a sophisticated name for a sophisticated lady. But then I realised how close it was to Adam and felt frustrated that I’d have to change it…until inspiration struck. I should make her name even closer to Adam’s. And so, Ada was born, and I wove in the story of how he was named after her. Having names so alike perfectly illustrated how close they were to each other, and was a constant subliminal reminder to readers.
Of course there are plenty of other ways authors come up with names, too. Searching a telephone directory or newspaper is a popular one. I’ve even made up a name inspired by a favourite character from a television programme I’m watching at the time (Sandra Yang, in Flowers for the Dead, is inspired by Greys Anatomy. I took the last name of the character, Christina Yang, and the first name of the actress who plays her, Sandra Oh, to create one of Adam’s victims).
I’ve employed a variety of techniques in my latest work in progress – you’ll have to see if you can spot any hidden hints to personality in the names when you read it! But I’ve also named characters after people who have won competition, so do look out for more of those opportunities in the future, if you want a character named after you.
One thing is for sure though, when you’re asking yourself, “what’s in a name?” the answer can be far more complex than you imagine.