They might smell as sweet but would roses still be associated with romance if they were called snot blossoms? If Scarlett O’Hara had actually been a Margaret, would Gone With The Wind have worked just as well? Would Rhett Butler’s final words to her have had so much impact if it had been ‘Frankly Margaret, I don’t give a damn’ (I’m thinking the book here rather than the film where the line is slightly different)? And what if his name had been Fred instead of Rhett? Then there’s Mr. D’Arcy, would he have been quite so appealing to Miss Elizabeth Bennet if his surname had been Sidebottom instead? (This wasn’t an uncommon name in England.) Personally, I don’t think any of these alternatives would work quite as well as the original names. Of course, in some cases it’s just that we’re so familiar with the name that’s used for an individual character we can’t imagine it being anything different but in others, choosing the wrong name can ruin the flow of an otherwise good story, especially if, for some reason, it jars with the reader.
This is probably why writers sometimes agonise over the naming of characters, and it’s not just one or two names they have to think about. If there are groups of people in a story, they need to make sure the names work not just individually but also together so that none of them stand out as being odd in comparison to the others. Author’s also got to make sure last names fit with first names in the mind of the reader and that both fit with the time period your writing in. It might be a more common name now but you can’t have a girl called Wendy in a story set before 1904 because it didn’t really exist as a name in its own right before J.M. Barrie used it in Peter Pan.
So, when I’m writing, how do I decide on names for my characters? Generally, I ‘borrow’ them from people I know or have met, not whole names but maybe a first name here and a last name there. I also keep a list of names that I add to whenever I come across a new name that I might want to use at some point (particularly for surnames or for people from different parts of the world where I may struggle to come up with something realistic myself). This list of names also allows me to keep track of what names I’ve used for more minor characters to make sure I don’t use them again when I shouldn’t. This is important because you don’t want to confuse the reader by accidentally using the same name for different bit part players in the same novel and there’s only so many times you can call different people in different stories Bob before regular readers start getting pissed off at your lack of imagination.
I find that characters names often change between different drafts of my work and, usually, it’s only after I’ve written quite a bit about them that their name starts to become fixed in my mind. This is because characters have a funny way of taking themselves in unplanned and unexpected directions as I write and this affects whether a specific name fits them or not. However, before I do fix on a name, I’ll almost always ask at least one other person to read a bit about the character and let me know whether they think a specific name fits. This can sometimes reveal problems that I’d never noticed because I was too close to a character.
This happened when I was writing For Those In Peril On The Sea, where I had a character that had somehow morphed into an early-twenties American college drop out from a rich background. He hadn’t really started out that way and I’d originally had the name John in mind for him. However, when I ran this passed by girlfriend (who also happens to be a great editor) she found it just didn’t sit right because it didn’t feel American enough. She then suggested dropping the ‘h’ and changing it to Jon which worked so much better that I was a bit annoyed this simple change hadn’t occurred to me on my own.
In terms of matching first names to last names, this is something I don’t usually have to think much about. This is because I primarily write in a post-apocalyptic/zombie genre where I’m dealing with small groups of survivors who know each other well. In these situations surnames would rarely, if ever, be used. In fact, in For Those In Peril On The Sea, only one character is specifically given a surname (the others have them in my head but they’re not mentioned in the book itself). This is a character known as CJ, which are the initials of her first and last names (Camilla Jamieson). She’s a posh English girl in her late teens, so the name Camilla fitted with her background but you could see why she might prefer to go by her initials (it’s much younger and trendier). This issue weaves itself into the story because it allows one of the other characters to call her by her full name when he wants to annoy her. Changes in the relationship between these two characters can then be followed by changes in what he calls her (at first Camilla or Cammy just to wind her up but later her preferred name of CJ as he starts to respect her).
Looking back across my own writing for this piece, I find that I tend to use short names, mostly ones with a single syllable. I’d not really noticed this before but I think it’s because I feel that longer names slow down action sequences and these are often a key elements in my stories. Names like Jon and Jane seem to work better in such scenes than ones like Jonathan and Jamillia. Of course, this might just be personal preference.
On the subject of names, there’s one more thing to consider. This is whether the reader will easily be able to work out how a name is pronounced. This is because many readers will bond faster with a character who’s name they can actually hear in their own head as they’re reading a book than one they can’t. For example, unless they’re of some sort of Celtic extraction, most readers will have much more affinity with a character called Rory (the English translation) rather than Rhuairidh (Scots Gaelic) or Ruaidhrigh (Irish Gaelic) just because they have no idea of how it should sound. This doesn’t mean that there’s not a place for difficult to pronounce and unfamiliar names, it’s just that you’ve got to use them sparingly and only when it’s relevant.
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK, and available as an ebook and in print the US from the 21st March 2013. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.