What’s in a Name?

It’s been a rather frustrating week for my novel. I’ve had a reasonable amount of free time, and yet I’ve actually managed to do very little writing. Instead, I’ve spent an awful lot of the last seven days on baby-themed websites, trawling through pastel-hued pages adorned with cutesy, cartoon animals and scrolling through strangely addictive forum threads for parents-to-be. Before anyone starts jumping to conclusions, I don’t have a big announcement to make. No, I’ve just been trying to sort out some of my characters’ names.

Choosing names for characters can be great fun, but it’s certainly not always easy. There are so many possibilities and so many things to consider. On the one hand, I want my characters to have relatively common names – names that are likely to be familiar to readers. Obscure names can work brilliantly, but they can also be alienating, making characters difficult to relate to and difficult to penetrate. If pronunciation isn’t clear, they can even be quite distracting (I read a lot of books by Irish authors and I do occasionally run into problems). But then, it’s only when I start trying to think of nice, common names for my characters (or I start looking through lists of them online) that I realise just how many people I know, and how many names are immediately problematic as a result.

It may sound odd at first, but if I can link a name to several people, there’s not usually too much of an issue. It doesn’t make me any more inclined to feature it in my novel (I don’t particularly want people coming up to me claiming to have recognised themselves) but I’m usually able to consider it. Perhaps it’s because I’ve already accepted that the name can fit multiple characters, so I don’t have a problem with throwing one more into the mix. However, when there’s just the one person, it tends to be a lot harder to keep an open mind. Their traits can become so closely entwined with the name that the two end up impossible to separate, and I can’t imagine it ever suiting anybody different.

Of course, there are thousands of names out there. Even considering only the more common choices, I don’t think any of us can claim to know somebody for every single one. Unfortunately, simply discarding those names with which we’re particularly familiar doesn’t always make things much easier.

The problem is, we come into contact with names everywhere – they’re a part of life – and our experience inevitably shapes the way we look at them. We build certain ideas around them, and start to associate certain names with certain attributes. For writers, it’s perhaps not so hard deciding on a name for a brand new character; there’s more flexibility and to some extent, the character can be moulded around it. But when you’re working the other way around and trying to find a name for a character who’s already very much established, it can be immensely difficult. I think the best analogy is one of trying on clothes. On the hanger, things might seem to tick all the necessary boxes, but it doesn’t mean that they’ll fit properly, that they’ll suit the person, or that they’ll feel right – and it’s exactly the same with names. I could quite easily come up with a female, young-ish sounding name, but finding one that works with the character I’ve got in mind is a whole other matter.

These problems aren’t restricted to forenames, either. You might not feel as though you have such strong preferences when it comes to surnames (partly, I suppose, because we don’t normally have much control over them) but as a writer you’ll often need to find something that works with multiple characters. Earlier this week I thought I’d found the perfect surname for one of my lead females. It had been irritating me for a long time and I started to get really quite excited when I made the discovery, but a few minutes later I was back to square one. Why? Because when I went to add it to my character notes, I realised that it would make her brother ‘Charlie Harley’ – and he just didn’t deserve that.

Most of my characters have had their names for a long time now, but I still have a few gaps and it’s getting to the stage where I feel those gaps really need to be filled. It’s not the same, writing with blanks instead of names, and until my characters have their full titles they just don’t feel complete. So I will keep looking, and when I do find the right ones I know it will be wonderfully satisfying. I’m just hoping that it doesn’t take too much longer, (a) because I’d really like to make some progress with the rest of my writing, and (b) because I’m tired of baby-related adverts popping up on the side of my internet browser. 74 nappies for £10.75?! Thanks, but I think I’ll pass.

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CC Image courtesy of SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget on Flickr

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