Bob by any other name

All novels need characters. Unfortunately, characters are awkward buggers who won’t do as they’re told and just cause trouble any way they can, like demanding names. I’ve recently started writing a scene for Forever 27 which introduces a character I had previously dubbed ‘Professor Chater’. Then, suddenly, he starts wanting a Christian name as well, which is just plain greedy. So I call him Michael, thinking ‘it’ll do’. Then I realise I not only already have a Michael on the cast list, but I’m about to introduce him later in the same scene. Oops! So I re-name the Professor Vincent. But wait, I’ve already got a Vincent too, albeit he doesn’t come along until later and is usually known by a nickname anyway. Still, best to eliminate any chance of a mix-up. What other names are there? The mind goes blank. In the end I call him Mervyn and hope for the best.

My little story illustrates a problem many writers struggle with, how to come up with a suitable and unique name for each character. It’s a lot harder than you might think. Obeying the one-Steve limit is just the start; you need to make sure there is absolutely no possibility of confusion, no Michael and Mitchell, or Lisa and Louisa. Tolkien may have come up with some great names – Gollum, Shelob, Faramir – but did he have to call his main villains Sauron and Saruman, and his only two female characters Arwen and Eowyn?

Of course, with names as with so many other aspects of writing, the freedom of invention in fantasy or science fiction can be a bit of a double-edged sword. On the plus side, you’re not restricted to the tedious ranks of names from the baby books (mind you, neither are many parents…). On the minus side, if you come up with your own names, they might sound ridiculous. Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon Riders of Pern series boasts characters called things like F’lar and F’nor (I’m not making this up). Or you could try using ‘real’ names, but spelled in, um, creative ways. Personally I don’t really see how calling someone ‘Petyr’ or ‘Peeta’ instead of just plain Peter improves your book, but hey, George RR Martin and Suzanne Collins have sold an awful lot of copies, so they must be doing something right. A third way – the one I used for The Heartland of the Winter – is the ‘Aerith and Bob’ approach, where some characters have ‘normal’ names and others ‘fantasy’ names. This can work well if there’s a distinction in the naming conventions between different societies in your world, but if the names are scattered at random it can be a bit jarring.

A name needs to not only suit the book’s setting, but to suit the character as well. A well-chosen name can make the character memorable, conjuring up an vivid image in the reader’s mind. A poorly-chosen name – not so much. This is something that can only really be done by ‘feel’ – I actually ended up swapping over two characters’ names during an early draft of Heartland because it just felt like they were attached to the wrong people. It can be tempting to resort to punny names – Rick O’Shea the Irish terrorist, Eric Shun the porn star – but this is not generally recommended.

Which authors have got it right? Well, I’ll suggest two who have impressed me in different ways: Jane Austen and JK Rowling. Austen names her characters with simple elegance, each name perfectly expressive without being over the top. Elinor Dashwood. Frederick Wentworth. Emma Woodhouse. And of course, Mr Darcy. Rowling – who is, lest we forget, writing for children – is rather less subtle and can’t resist a few puns, but her names are certainly distinctive. Horace Slughorn is probably my personal favourite, but there are loads more – Draco Malfoy, Albus Dumbledore, Bellatrix Lestrange. All names which roll off the tongue and evoke a vibrant world of magic. And you remember who the characters are – which is, after all, the whole point.

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