What Do I Call My Character?
‘No One Can Take Away Your Name.’ So says a character in The Clearwater Inheritance, and it’s true. It also reminds us that when we create a character’s name, it becomes very difficult to change it, especially when writing a series. So, how do you get it correct from the start?
I saw a post in a Facebook writers’ group the other day where an author was asking for advice about naming her characters. She gave a brief outline of each one, and then asked, ‘What should I call them?’ A brief outline isn’t much to go on, so I briefly told her what I do when I need to name a character.
Below are my thoughts on the subject in greater detail, and some of the ways I go about naming characters.
It is important to ask yourself some questions.
When do your Characters Live?
I am currently writing in the 1880s and my stories are set in England. Recently, when working on ‘Guardians of the Poor’, I was inspired by a newspaper article from the time. Mentioned in it was a workhouse official named Edward Capps. I took his name and made him the master of the Hackney workhouse, partly to keep some realism, partly because I wanted a villain with a fairly ordinary, yet slightly odd name, and it is an easy one to read. His henchman in that story is called Skaggot, a far more Dickensian name, and one which reads like a cross between skag and maggot, neither of which are very nice words. Skag is slang for heroin and was in use in the 1880s, and we all know what we think of maggots.
It’s worth remembering that some names in common usage today did not exist in Victorian times, so it’s important to check what era you are writing in, and the name trends of the time. These days, we might find Christian names such as Brooklyn, Phoenix, Brighton and other places as that seem to be a trend. Similarly, names from popular TV shows crop up from time to time. For example, there was an influx of Charlenes and Scotts when Neighbours first became popular in the UK. If you look at censuses from the late 1800s you will find a wealth of Mary-Ann, Charlotte and Victoria, and James, Albert and William. Far more traditional.
What country is the character from?
In Greece, it’s traditional for a couple’s first son to take the name of his paternal grandfather. I am sure the same kind of tradition applies in other countries, and in classes of British society. Sometimes, a mother’s maiden name is used, or a grandmother’s or a more distant relative. One of my brothers is named after a great-great-uncle, my other brother has among his names one of my father’s names, Clayre, which is an unusual name, and none of us knows where it came from.
I have written characters from Ireland, so I needed Irish names, and these can be very different from English names. Some are the same or very similar, for example, I have a character named Karan, and that’s the Irish spelling of Karen, so details are important to bear in mind. Ditto characters from Scotland, Ukraine and Transylvania, and others who appear in the Clearwater Mysteries, have country-appropriate names. My Romanian count wouldn’t have been called Charlie Smith. He is Roman Movileşti from the House of Bogdanesti (or Musat) because he has a lineage dating back to 1392.
An aside. When writing ‘Deviant Desire’, the first of the Clearwater Mysteries, I introduced a character called ‘Fecker’. There’s more about that name below, but his real name is Andrej, and that’s all we know about his name to start with. Later in the story, he appears at Clearwater’s house and is introduced by the footman. I wanted to raise a slight smile among my readers, and so gave the footman the task of announcing Andrej with his full name. Therefore, the name had to be complicated, but appropriate, and I went for Andrej Borysko Yakiv Kolisnychenko. Admittedly, not easy to read, and he was soon known as Mr Andrej, but his name was important. If/when you read through the series, including ‘Banyak & Fecks’ and particularly, ‘The Clearwater Inheritance,’ you will come to see why Andrej has these names, and why they are so important to him. As his mentor says during one of the stories, ‘No one can take away your name.’
As well as considering the character’s country, you should consider his location. There are differences in Christian and surnames between someone who is East London poor and someone who is West London rich. You don’t want to use cliché though. Not every East End scallywag was called Charlie, Bert or Dodger, and not all barmaids are called Betsy, Maisy and Poll. Try and be inventive, and one way to do that is to use nicknames. More about that in a moment.
How old is your character?
As I said, names, like clothes, come and go in fashion. Remember that your character may be 60 now, but when he was born, there may have been a different trend for names. When I was popped out, Toby was hip but unusual, these days, it’s more common.
You have to think, ‘Who were the parents, and what would they have called him/her?’ This gives you character background and some backstory, and a name can say a great deal about a character’s ancestors and parents. Think of the trends at the time and what was popular. Such things can include, the TV programmes of the time, pop singers, royalty, politicians, explorers, anyone hitting the newspapers in your country at the time of your character’s birth.
Parents, after all, are the ones who do the naming.
Take my main player in The Clearwater Mysteries: Archer Camoys Riddington, 19th Viscount Clearwater, Lord Baradan of Hapsburg-Bran, Honorary Boyar Musat-Rashnov, to give him his full set of names and titles. Obviously, I don’t refer to him by all of them all the time. The official announcements happen only two or three times during 11 books, and most of the time he is known as Archer, Archie, Your Lordship or Lord Clearwater. It depends on the status between characters. Titled friends would call him Clearwater, servants, My Lord, his lover, Archie, and so on.
Archer was named by his father, a hideously military man, who was obsessed with the Battle of Agincourt. Archer’s brother is called Crispin as the battle was fought on that day, and Archer is named after the longbowmen who were responsible for the victory. He’s also got Camoys as a name because he was one of the commanding officers.
So, think ‘Who named this character’ bascule you can be sure it wasn’t you.
Having said that, you do name your characters, and none of the above thoughts may apply if you’re writing fantasy. There, you can be extra-creative, but be careful. Make sure your names are easy to read. Marthigglysistbour from the planet Zyghrthithril ain’t that easy to visually digest. I am immediately put off a book if the title has in it a difficult-to-read name. The Kronghstyz Series of Sci-Fi fantasies might fill its author with pride, but for me, it would get me scrolling past.
Names to suit characters
This is one of my faves. I love checking out what names mean or thinking about why characters are called what they are. I do this a lot, sometimes just to amuse myself with obscure references and meanings, sometimes because it suits the story.
This morning, I wrote a newspaper article from 1882, and in it, mentioned a local policeman. ‘It seems to me the man were murdered,’ Inspector Trawlish of the Cornish Constabulary said. The name came out of my fingers rather than my head, but I wanted something vaguely Cornish-sounding and thought of fishing. Trawler would have been too obvious for a detective, but Trawl-ish sounds like he’s not very accurate in his work, so I went with that. Later, I also had a tea rooms owner and she popped out as Mrs Killraddock. I don’t know why. Probably because it also sounds Cornish (and the story is set there in 1890), but looking at it again, I imagine Mrs Killraddock being not very good at cooking kippers. ‘Don’t ask her to make breakfast, she’ll kill yer ‘addock.’
Meanwhile… In The Clearwater Mysteries, Silas Hawkins is named after the priest who delivered him and slapped him into life, Father Patrick. However, Silas’ mother wanted the Priest’s name before he was ordained, and that was Silas. To have called him Patrick O’Anything Irish-sounding would have been a cliché.
Thomas Payne is named because he is from a part of Kent I know well and there, there live a large collection of families called Payne. Simple. It also provided me with a play on words when Tom Payne and James Wright become involved in the detective agency. They were going to call it ‘The Wright-Payne Detective Agency’ until Silas pointed out another meaning.
If you want to find the best examples of names suiting characters, you only have to read Dickens. He was a master of characterisation through naming as you can see with Uriah Heap, Mr Bumble, Uncle Pumblechook, and who can forget Dick Swiveller from The Old Curiosity Shop? Come to that, what about Master Bates (Charlie), one of the boys from Oliver Twist?
We’ll say no more, and move on.
I like to give my characters nicknames for two reasons.
1) It’s what happens in real life, and
2) They can help define characters and relationships.
In the Clearwater Mysteries, Silas calls Andrej, ‘Fecker’ because, in Silas’ Irish accent, ‘He’s a very handsome Fecker.’ The name stuck. Similarly, Fecker, shortened to Fecks, calls Silas Banyak. In the Ukrainian village Fecker comes from, a banyak was a small cooking pot into which you’d put all kinds of stuff to produce one meal. Thus, for Fecker, Silas is a mixture of all things bubbling away and always on heat. Banyak was also the name of a faithful horse that brought him halfway across Europe, so the name also symbolises Silas’ loyalty to his friend.
Beware the Obvious
To finish with, here are a few things I suggest you look out for when inventing names.
- Make sure they don’t all start with the same letter. Archer, Andrew, Andrej, Allan, Alice and Amy all appearing on one page, even in one novel, is confusing.
- Ensure the name are time and place appropriate
- Remember who named them. Two of my characters are named after places. Jasper Blackwood got his surname from the workhouse where he was placed as a baby. Dalston Blaze got his name because he was an unknown child rescued from a fire in a place called Dalston. He was entered into the workout register as ‘The boy from the Dalston Blaze’ and the name stuck.
- Ensure that you proofread and keep the names consistent (says he!). It’s easy to miss a letter or not see a typo. I often write Adnrey instead of Andrej and never see it.
- Tip: When I am reading through a full MS and come across a typo, I immediately do a search/find for that misspelt word. That way, I can pick up any other instances and correct them before I miss them again.
- Don’t make names too complicated, even if it reads perfectly well to you.
- Try and say something about your character in their name (see Dickens)
Keep a list of names used so you don’t repeat yourself. This can be tricky in places and times when something like 50% of males were all called by the same name, but you’ll find a way around it.
- Consider nicknames, but make sure you explain, subtly, that Silas is also called Banyak, and Andrej is also called Fecker, or Fecks, etc.
- Keep nicknames consistent with the character using them. For example, only Andrej calls Lord Clearwater ‘Geroy’. It means noble in his Ukrainian, so it would be inappropriate for others to use it. Only Andrej’s closest finds are allowed to call him Fecker, so nicknames can also show relationships between characters.
And finally, another tip.
There are hundreds of baby naming websites out there, simply search for ‘popular boy/girl names,’ and you will be set for life. If writing in the modern-day.
If writing in the past, census lists, passenger lists, ‘popular Victorian names’ searches, and so on will all be invaluable.
If writing about Irish characters, or wherever, do the same thing. ‘Popular Irish names…’ or search for names of Celtic saints, if you want something mystical and old. Countries, place names… Be inventive, find them on Google Maps.
Save a bookmark file named ‘character names’ or something, and put in there the links to websites you find that are of use.
There, those were my random thoughts on naming characters. I’m off now to work on chapter 17 of the next Larkspur Mystery (still untitled), where I will be inventing more names because I’ve got something like eight murder victims to think up.
It’s all part of the fun.
Thanks for reading and I’ll be back next Saturday.