A rose by any other name
Every writer knows the moment when a vague story idea starts thickening into something much more real. For me, that often happens when I start getting the names of my main characters. It’s true that occasionally names are the first things that spring to my mind and so things feel a little different. But more usually, it’s the basic plot that bursts on me first, and the names come after. Before the naming, things seem abstract, even when the plot is beginning to take shape. It’s almost as if the story could happen to anyone, like an urban myth or a fairytale where no-one is named, but exists as a common noun: ‘the king’; ‘the hitchhiker’; ‘the witch’ and so forth. After naming the characters everything becomes more personal, more real. You might have had a vague idea of your characters, of their basic personality, even of their appearance: but naming them makes them spring fully into life. Also, the plot comes sharply into focus, because at its heart what plot really is of course is the interaction between characters, good and bad.
So it’s an important thing, this name game. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but Rose herself will be changed if we don’t unconsciously associate her with the queen of flowers. I think carefully about appropriate names for my characters, partly because names conjure up an impression of a person in a book, just as they do in real life; we tend to have an idea about what people might be like, based on their names, before we even meet them in person. This is based on our associating the name with people we know, even with ourselves; there’s a childishly instinctive part of us that automatically thinks, ‘Oh, a David is like this, or a Sophie is like that; or an Ivan, or a Sue, or whatever’ and it can be disconcerting to meet someone whose name you unconsciously have ‘classed’, who doesn’t at all conform to your idea of that name.
And of course these ideas about a name’s presence vary from country to country, and time to time: for instance, a romantic hero called, say, Cyril or a romantic heroine called Mildred would not have much traction in an English-language romance novel, set in the modern age. But set them back in Victorian times and you might be able to get away with it. I say might because some names sound irredeemably uncool or silly to our modern ears and thus distract the reader from the character’s intended presence. Best then to pick other Victorian names that are less loaded with silly freight. Similarly, to call, say, a French character Cindy Lou is hardly a very appropriate thing to do, unless you’re writing a deliberately off-the-wall story, or there’s some intriguing backstory associated with the character’s name—which you’d do best to introduce pretty fast into the story, or readers will be jolted out of the suspension of disbelief. Surnames are similar—best to pick something appropriate for time and place and presence, and also, if you are using names from outside English-language culture, best also to pick ones that aren’t too difficult to pronounce, in a monolingual reader’s mind(you can’t assume your reader will know more than the language they’re reading in). Stumbling over difficult names can be a real roadblock on the suspension-of-disbelief highway. Though of course that doesn’t necessarily apply to fantasy.
Fantasy’s different, in the name game. While with thrillers, family sagas, and ‘‘realistic’’ novels of various sorts, I tend to stick to time-place-association-appropriate names, names for the characters in my fantasy novels can be a little more, er, fantastical. You can really let it rip (whilst being careful not to make things sound silly or be so much of a gobbledygook mouthful no-one can hope to pronounce it). For the origins of fantasy names, I’ve used all kinds of other sources: not only from traditional stories, folk belief, myth and so on, but also from all kinds of outlandish inspirations. For instance, in my Thomas Trew and the Hidden World fantasy series for younger readers, I dipped into such things as Katherine Briggs’ fantastic A Dictionary of Fairies, Greek and Norse and Celtic myth—and also road signs (Adverse Camber), the names of herbs (Angelica Eyebright), of cloud formations (Cumulus Zephyrus), of printing styles(Monotype Eberhardt).
Names for places are also important. In the Thomas Trew series, the names for the two principal villages in ‘Middler’ country (the Hidden World is made up of many different regions, which Thomas visits in the course of the six books), Owlchurch and Aspire, came about because of my observation that British villages often had one of two styles of church—the square Norman tower style with pointy bits at each corner which make them look from a distance like a big, square owl’s head; and the tall pointy Gothic spire type. An owlchurch; a spire. It also went well because Owlchurch, like its name, is rather homely, quaint and old-fashioned; while Aspire is gleaming and modern and refined. Straight away, starting from the names themselves, a situation was set up, a rivalry central to the developing plot, and I was well away.