Monday, September 03, 2018

The Naming of Characters

What with the mysterious happenings in Sybil's car and the uncanny number of times another  post has exactly echoed what I was planning to blog about myself, I am beginning to wonder if a strange spirit of some kind is abroad on Type M.  As I'm starting a new book, finding the right names for the characters is at the forefront of my mind and I was planning to write about it when I read Sybil's post asking us what we felt about characters' names.

It's the old 'That which we call a rose' question.  Would the human love affair with roses ever have developed if it had been called a rutabaga instead?  Would the unromantic sound of the word have made the scent less seductive?

I wonder if anyone else has as many baby name books as I do?  Admittedly, one was inherited from my daughter after they had completed their family.  It's called 'A Thousand and One Baby' names and when I asked her  how they'd chosen their first-born's name she said that it was the only one they could both agree on.

Yes, we all have very definite views on names and I'm only thankful I don't have to consult anyone else about what to call my characters.  It's hard enough to satisfy myself that I've got it right.  I'm really, really fussy, so I spend a lot of time leafing through the books to find the name that will jump out at me for the character I have in mind.

The name of my first series detective, Marjory Fleming, was easy, though. It is a deliberate homage to a Scottish 19th century child poet.  She was wonderfully precocious, writing sharp and funny poems that caught the attention of Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Scott, but died before her ninth birthday.  I had always loved her and she came from the county of Fife, as I do - the saying has it that you need a long spoon to sup with a Fifer - and it seemed a good precedent for the name.  Fifers are a clannish lot, and the only other person to guess the reason for my Marjory's name was Val McDermid - another one of the tribe.

Her sergeant, Tam MacNee, came into my mind with the name attached.  Other names, I suppose, reflect my personal prejudices.  Marjory's  husband is stable and dependable; to me he's a natural Bill.  Charles Dickens obviously didn't think so; Bill Sykes was one of his nastier villains.

Opinions differ strongly but there must be some names we all agree on.  I doubt if many authors would call an an action man hero Cedric or Percy; you wouldn't call a mousy librarian Atalanta.  On the other hand, take Jessica, for example - to me that's a strong, professional-type name but a friend of mine thinks it's sort of mimsy and feminine, so not Jessica for my Detective Chief Superintendent.  My new detective is Kelso; I like  hard consonants for a strong character.

But in general it's very difficult to explain why one name is right and another isn't. I don't have a system of any sort. Rather feebly, I think I would say it's just that this character sort of feels as if they would have a name like this. I'd love to know how other people do it.

And I'd particularly like to know what readers feel about characters' names.  Would a name you don't like put you off?  Do you think as you read, 'Can't think why it should be that name.  That character is obviously a Jennifer not a Jane.'  It would be fascinating feedback.


Sybil Johnson said...

We're all psychically connected here. That's the only explanation. :-> Seriously, it is rather funny how many times I've thought about writing about a topic and someone else comes up with it as well.

Donna S said...

I agree with you about the names of characters. As a reader, it makes a difference and if the name is too long or difficult to pronounce, it puts me off the book. I find this a lot in fantasy or science fiction books. Asking me to suspend my belief while I ride a dragon or fly in a space craft is hard enough without being able to pronounce the hero's name.

Aline Templeton said...

My problem is when the characters' names are too similar. I try to make sure I don't have two prominent ones that even start with the same letter, but sometimes I get carried away with names I think really fit and don't notice it.

Susan D said...

Since you ask, yes. A name I don't like would really put me off, and much as I might really want to like or admire the character, I might not be able to get there. Of course, that is usually personal, and a writer can't come up with a name that will please all readers.

Then, of course, as you said, there are names that are NEVER going to cut it for a protagonist. Cedric, Bertha, Ronnie, Wally, Mabel. All right, maybe Mabel, because some old names are becoming charming again. Lily, for example.

You hit it right with me with Marjory, my mom's name. However, In all her nearly 96 years, no one would ever have called her Big Marge. In fact, in high school, she was known as Midge. Very petite.