Saturday, 10 January 2015

What's in a name?

I've had the subject of names on my mind recently since embarking on the third Esme mystery and gathering together the characters who'll appear in the novel.

Some writers change characters' names several times along the way while they 'get to know them'. I've read of one author who doesn't choose names at the outset at all but uses a series of Xs or Ys in his manuscript instead. But I have to have a name for my character before I can even begin. So choosing the right name is important.

Names can say much about a character even before they leap into action on the page. Consider the different preconceptions generated by the names Bartholomew and Wayne, or Gladys and Zoe, for example.

Nancy Kress, in her book 'Dynamic Characters', suggests that characters' names reflect their parents' choices. She points out that parents who decide on the names Susan Mary have a very different world view compared to those who choose to call their daughter something more flamboyant like Anastasia or quirky like (Nancy's suggestion) Rainbow Sweetgrass. And what about the reaction of those characters to their name? Do they hate having a plain name and long for an exotic one? Do they love being 'different' or yearn to be 'ordinary'? The answers could help with character development or even give the writer an idea in which direction the story could go.

Some names offer a clue as to the era in which a character was born, something aptly demonstrated recently while I was helping transcribe school admission records for Shropshire Family History Society. The first batch spanned the 1940s so names such as Dorothy, Joan, Hilda, Raymond and Dennis featured. This week it was Lily, Elsie and Henry, in a list dating from 1906.

But some names endure across the ages and are more difficult to pigeon-hole. A survey of 13th century Essex parish records put William as the most popular boy's name and in other areas surveyed it remained in the top ten for at least the next three centuries. By the 1950s it had become less well used until rediscovering popularity in a 2001 list. For girls, Ann or Annie spanned the centuries as one of the most consistent popular girl's names, from the 1700s right through to the 20th century.

Other names have dropped completely out of usage. The name Rohesia, which I used for a key character in my recent novel, The Indelible Stain, was number nine in the 'most popular' of girl's names around 1250. It's a Latinised form of the name Rose but it's not a name you hear these days (unless you know different, of course!).

The advice when choosing characters' names for your story or novel is never to have two starting with the same letter, so as to avoid confusion. When I wrote Blood-Tied I named Esme's sister Elizabeth without thinking (I seem to have a fixation for names beginning with E for some reason). Before I realised, I'd used the name to demonstrate the particularity of Elizabeth's character - that she never shortened her name to Liz or Lizzie, but always insisted on being known by her full name, Elizabeth. But in the event, rather than having to change it, the error proved serendipitous as it provided me with a very important plot point which I would never have thought of otherwise (and if you don't know what I meant, you'll have to read the book to find out!).

So, on that note, if you'll excuse me - I'd better get back to consulting my Oxford Concise Dictionary of First Names.

If you're a writer, how do you choose your characters' names? Do you, like me, need to know what they are at the outset or do they come to you later in the draft?
And what about surnames? Do you stick a pin in the phone book? Do you scan the cast lists in the Radio Times?
Do you have any good tips for choosing names? Please do share them in the comments box below.