Sunday, 3 May 2015

Giving Characters the Right Name...

As possible names for the new royal baby is getting press coverage at the moment, with the birth of a daughter to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, I thought talking about suitable names for characters might be a good topic - and it's wonderful to have something other than the approaching general election to discuss.

Names 'come with baggage' even if we don't realise it. It's built into us as we grow, experience life and are exposed to the numerous influences around us; certain names can suggest certain things- when you may have been born, and even social background.

But it doesn't have to...

Ethel for example; it suggests an old lady, which was perhaps why the early writers of EastEnders called one of their fictional elderly characters by that name. But to someone else who grew up with the golden age of Hollywood films, the same name would suggest the gutsy singer and actress Ethel Merman, Two completely different examples of the same first name.

There are lots of name books available, and the Internet has numerous sites where you can find out the etymology of names, whether general or to specific cultures/countries. So if you need to find a name for a character you've decided was born in another country, you won't have such a struggle...

Have a look at the random name generator on the Behind the Name website. You can set options for country; there's even Myth to Fantasy via Ancient, Biblical and even Fairy, Goth or Transformer!

If you have a contemporary setting there's a lot more choice of names, even taking into account setting, location, and background of your characters.

Look on the ONS website for the list of popular baby names each year going back to 1996.

Names in an historical settings are different too, especially the further back you go. Name choices are reduced for the ordinary worker, compared to the variety used for those with land and money.

If you've ever done family history research you will often see the same names being used, in the 1600-1700's, William, John, and Thomas are extremely common- it wouldn't be unusual to find first cousins with the same first name (that must have been confusing at times).

By the Victorian period there was a much wider variety of first names- even unusual ones, probably reflecting the progress made with the industrial revolution and the wider movement of the population..

Genealogy websites can be useful if you want suitable surnames for a character located in a specific region or county. I did this for one of the main servants in my Dorset novel, and it just brought her to life, giving me a stronger mental image of her.

I've learnt to listen to my characters where names are concerned. If I choose a name that my characters think is wrong, whether their own, or someone else's, they'll deliberately start referring to them by the name they think is right.

A few even tell me straight out that what I've called them is wrong, and their name is...

To be able to write these characters' stories their names have to be right, because if they aren't, the words don't flow for me. So it's all in the depths of my brain.

So, how do you choose names for your characters? Are there any books or websites you'd recommend to others?

As Shakespeare wrote, what's in a name?

Image courtesy of Tim Seed/


Patsy said...

My mother-in-law is called Ethel! Knowing someone with the same name as a character is bound to colour our opinions, I feel.

Anonymous said...

I used to collect names in case I had children and when my son and daughter, Caolan and Taryn, were born, it was easy to find a name for them on the scrap of paper I'd carried about with me for years. So now that they are 14 and 15 I can use the rest of the names for my characters :)


Carolb said...

Yes, it does, Patsy.

We can't help but associate certain names with people we know or have known, and I'm sure that will mean there are certain names we just won't use because of it.

I'd never call one of my heroes Adrian because of that.

Carolb said...

That's a wonderful idea, Marion; and your son and daughter now have interesting names as a result. :-)

Teresa Ashby said...

Thanks for the link, Carol. This is a site I use sometimes I dip into my family tree and choose a name at random now and then, but you are so right that a character will let you know if a name isn't right xx

Carolb said...

Thank you for that useful website suggestion, Teresa, always good to have recommendations.:-)

I have used names from my family tree a couple of times. It also proves that name was being used in that time period too.