What’s In A Name?
During this series, we’ve covered the inspiration and the talents you’ll need to create the book you want to write, along with its genre. Today’s blog covers one of those small details that seems insignificant until you make the change from reader to writer— but it’s actually a very important part of building a good scaffolding for your story.
Have you ever been catapulted right out of a story by the thought why on earth would anybody be called that in real life? A jolt like that shows how much care and attention authors should put into naming their characters.
Make sure the names you choose are a good fit with the tone you want to set. There’s nothing to stop you calling your drop-dead gorgeous World War One flying ace Betram Wilberforce, although anyone who has read the books of P G Wodehouse might have difficulty imagining the nation being saved by a chap named after Bertie Wooster.
The name Elizabeth probably holds the record for the number of variations on a theme. Each one has a unique feel, and shows the difference in tone the choice of a name can create. Queens Elizabeth I and II are very different women, but using the name in full evokes a suitably formal image. The transition from untouchable icon Elizabeth Taylor to much-married celebrity Liz Taylor is shorthand for a complete change in the public mindset. The star system shielded queens of Hollywood glamour until it became better publicity for them to be “more like us”. Glamorous Elizabeth became the chummier Liz when her many marriages were being dissected under the media microscope.
Smart and sensible Elizabeth Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was known within her family circle as the less formal Lizzy, and Eliza. She shared this second name with the equally forthright Miss Doolittle from Shaw’s Pygmalion, which later became My Fair Lady.
Gentle, kind, self-sacrificing Beth March in Little Women creates a completely different image. Betty Turpin was the down-to-earth inventor of the famous hotpot served in Coronation Street‘s Rovers Return. And who could forget pneumatic Barbara Windsor in Carry On Henry, telling a leering Sid James that her mum said she should always be a good Bet! Bet was also the name of a second barmaid at the Rovers Return, but no one would expect the leopard-print-and-lippy-wearing Bet Lynch to be a genius in the kitchen.
Some names, like William and Emma, have stayed wildly popular for a millennium. You couldn’t guess in what year a character with either of those names was born, although I’m guessing any future heroines called Stormi or North will have their years of birth set in stone.
A good way to choose names for your characters is to buy a book of baby names and trawl through it, or search internet lists for the most popular name in the year your hero or heroine was born.
The idea I’m developing for my next novel features a heroine who has been bullied all her life, but decides the time is right to make a stand. She’s called Tabitha Carter, and she hates her name. Her mother was christened Samantha, after the witch in the 1960s TV comedy series Bewitched. In due course, Mrs Samantha Carter copied the name her celebrity alter-ego gave to her magical daughter—Tabitha.
If sharing a name with a fictional witch’s child wasn’t bad enough, Tabitha Carter’s mother insists on shortening her name to ‘Tabby’. After years of politely asking her mother not to do it, when Tabitha finally snaps her mother says:
Make up your mind! Five minutes ago you didn’t want me to call you Tabitha. When I pander to you, you don’t like that either.
Once you’ve chosen a name that feels like a good fit for your character, put it into an online search engine to make sure there are no notorious criminals or famous eccentrics who share it—unless you plan on making your character either a notorious criminal or a famous eccentric, of course.
That’s not to say you can’t turn convention on its head to brilliant effect, but the contrast between name and popular image has to be enormous if it is to work well. In 1984, written just after the Second World War, George Orwell’s character Winston Smith doesn’t share any of war-time Prime Minster Churchill’s heroic qualities.
Who knows? The world might be ready and waiting for you to create a bloodthirsty anti-heroine called Violet-Elizabeth, who skins little boys alive, and could give Margaret Thatcher’s memory a run for its money. Do you fancy giving it a try?