There are many things I like about writing books. The staring out of the window is lovely. The drinking coffee whilst staring out of the window is also good.
However, when it comes to actually writing the words down onto the page (fortunately I like this bit too), one of my favourite parts is coming up with names and the more books I write, the more I enjoy this particular challenge.
Because it is a challenge as the writers amongst you will probably agree. You have to be very careful with names. Very careful indeed.
One misplaced Valerie and your old school-chum from thirty years back will be on your doorstep demanding to know why she’s been cast as a serial killer with a penchant for knitting woolly-faced effigies of her victims (Crime writer friends, feel free to have that one on me. You’re welcome)
When I wrote Not Quite Perfect, I was a complete name-giving rookie. I named most of my characters after my family and friends. In my defence, the whole novel began as a creative writing experiment but when it got more serious, the names sort of stuck. My sister-in-law still wants to know why my sixty-something bossy mother character is based on her (stop being bossy and I’ll tell you) whilst my mother-in-law was sorely disappointed to only play a walk-on role. You can’t please all of the people or indeed any of the people, especially if you’re related to them.
It may seem like the easiest thing in the world to give a character a name but names are tricky. You don’t always get them right first time. One of the main characters in Dear Lizzie was called Barney right up to the last moment when I suddenly realised that his name was Joe. Just like that. The poor man had been wandering through my novel, dealing with quite a lot of terrible things and I hadn’t even had the decency to give him the right name. Sorry Barney. I mean Joe.
Above all, you can have fun with names. You can play with them, you can
re-arrange them, you can invent completely new ones and stretch them into whatever you need them to be.
It’s basically the writer’s equivalent of Play-Doh and I’ve always loved Play-Doh (particularly the smell).
When I was writing Life or Something Like It last year, I was struggling with a name for a key male character. I was sharing this issue with my family over dinner, when my eight-year-old son fixed me with a look.
‘I have three ideas for you, Mum.’
‘Okay,’ I replied uncertainly. My son doesn’t usually offer much input regarding my books. Inspiration? Droves. Input? No. But into the mouths of gift horses, I will not look. It’s one of my rules.
‘First idea – Chris P. Bacon.’
Guffaws around the table. A raised eyebrow from me. ‘And the next?’
‘Terry Fied. Although that’s mainly for spooky stories,’ he said sagely.
‘Yes, this isn’t really a spooky book.’
‘Shame,’ he shrugged. ‘All right. How about, Robin Banks?’
‘It’s a fantastic name but maybe better suited to a book featuring a criminal?’
‘Probably,’ he said. ‘Well I can’t really help you. Sorry Mum.’
Never mind, son. Name-giving is an art. I’m no expert but I’m learning.
In my opinion, Charles Dickens is the top dog when it comes to names. There’s never a poll of best character names that doesn’t feature one of his. I mean, I was pretty proud of Cat Nightingale as the name for my reluctant heroine in Life Or Something Like It, but Uriah Heap is pure unbridled brilliance.
Ironically, my favourite name in the book I’ve just finished isn’t that of a person. It’s the name of the road on which they live – Hope Street, based on the south-east London community in which I’ve lived for large parts of my life.
I like to think that Charles Dickens might have approved or very likely come up with something better. Like I say, I’m learning.
So I thought it would be appropriate at this stage to consider my favourite character names. Here’s a short but by no means exhaustive list.
- Reginald Jeeves and Bertie Wooster
We don’t really need the first names do we? Perfect names, perfect characters, perfect stories. That is all.
- Eva Delectorskaya
William Boyd’s heroine from Restless. He has Dickens-like talents for names. This one sticks with me largely because I can barely pronounce it but I also love Nat Tate, Logan Mountstuart and Amory Clay.
- Huckleberry Finn
If you wanted a name to sum up the character of a chicken-stealing, grubby rascal then you couldn’t do much better.
- Veruca Salt
Children’s books lead the way with excellent names and Roald Dahl is probably the master. Mind you, with Charlie Bucket, Augustus Gloop, Willy Wonka and Mike Teavee all in one story, he pretty much cleaned up.
- Abel Magwich
Really, this entire list should be peopled by Charles Dickens’ characters but this meaty villain from Great Expectations wins for me. Any writer who created Dick Swiveller (stop sniggering at the back), Merry Pecksniff, Kit Nubbles, Pleasant Riderhood and Woolwich Bagnet as secondary character names should be crowned king of all the names forever.
I would love to hear your favourites if you’d like to leave a comment.
Right, I’m off to think up a name for an eighty-something female ex-librarian with a passion for cryptic crosswords. Maybe Ivy or Joan? Mind you, I’ve always liked Olive…
13 thoughts on “It’s all in the name”
What a lovely piece, and I really like the names you’ve picked out. You’ve made me think about the importance of names!
Anthony Trollope has a talent for naming characters too, I think. In Barchester Towers, Mr. Slope is slippery, Mrs Proudie is proud. There is Mr. Quiverful, Mr. Goodenough, Dr. Rerechild (the baby’s doctor) and Mrs Lookaloft. My absolute favourite though has to be Doctor Fillgrave! I love how you can tell so much about the character just from their name.
Thank you very much and I agree completely – the names are so much more than just names, aren’t they? If you’re good at it (like Trollope and Dickens for example), you immediately understand what the character is about because of the names. So clever…
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Great post! The real fun starts when you switch a character’s name at a midway point, thinking you weren’t really attached to the original one anyway, only to find you keep typing their first name and most of your editing boils down to weeding out all of the wrong names!!! AHHHH!
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Oh Lordy, I’m so glad you do that too. I’ve just finished editing my latest book and was writing a scene featuring Pamela, but changed it to Patricia for some reason – I had to stare at it for ages before I realised! AHHHHHH indeed!
Oh, oh, oh! I got a doozy for you!
Eponymous Clent, from Frances Hardinge’s Mosca Mye books (plus Mosca Mye, seriously!) In fact, Frances Hardinge just all around does great names.
Oh wow – these are splendid and must be added to all future ‘best name’ lists immediately!
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Eustace Clarence Scrubb, from C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It just sums up horrible priggish little boy, don’t you think? 😉
That is superb & really quite Dickensian…
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I have the most fun thinking up names for my villains (almost always supernatural creatures). Names from other cultures or times can sound ominous to a modern reader. Like “Morvyth” It’s a Welsh name and was a common name, in I think the 1600s or so. I’m using it for a demonic witch, and seemed to fit. 🙂
I have the most fun coming up with the names of my villains (almost always supernatural creatures). I use names from other times or cultures, which often sound ominous to a modern reader. Like “Morvyth,” the name of a villain from the current book. It was actually a fairly common Welsh name in, I think, the 1600s. I’m using it for a demonic witch, and it seems to fit.
Sounds like a perfect fit to me. I agree that villains are probably the most fun to name and I really enjoy doing a little research around location or era to make sure the names are as authentic as possible too – it’s definitely one of the perks of the job!
Loved this post, Annie and also that you included Veruca Salt as one of your favourite character names. I think Roald Dahl should be included as one of those writers with a special gift of finding just the right name – Charlie Bucket, Augustus Gloop, Mike TV… perfect
Thank you! I am with you on Roald Dahl – every name hits the note perfectly. I also rather love Miss Honey and Miss Trunchbull from Matilda and then there’s Boggis, Bunce & Bean from Fantastic Mr Fox – we could do this all day, couldn’t we?