What’s in a Name?

J. L. Harland • March 7th, 2021

With thanks to Brett Jordan on Unsplash for their photo.

We have been editing and the topic of names has been a source of much puzzlement and laughter. The main characters are all mapped out and we know them as well as members of our own family. We frequently talk about them as if they were real which to us, of course, they are. It’s the minor characters which can be more complicated.

We’ve had to be aware of confusion by avoiding characters with the same initial letter in the names, such as Sophia and Sylvie. Also, names that sound similar – Nico and Rico. When we plan, we tend to talk through and have the bare bones of the various scenes. However, on writing these episodes other minor characters are sometimes required as a foil for the main character. That’s where the problems start. Names are added and then forgotten. On reading through drafts, we see the same minor character with two different names. One of the hazards of co-writing. Of course, it is easy to rectify the errors, but it highlights the things to think about. Here are five aspects we try to bear in mind.

1. Age

The age of a character can often be hinted at in their name. Although some of the ‘old’ names are becoming more popular, such as Beatrice, Lena, Arthur and Jasper, in general names tend to be popular in certain decades. It is possible to find out (thank you, Google) which names were most popular in the decade your character was born. For example, a woman called Betty is more likely to be someone born in the 1950s than in the 1990s.

2. Era

This brings us on to the era. Your characters should reflect the times they live in. Think of the works of Jane Austen, for example. Her characters are of their time, although many of the names are classical and still in common use. These days the trend, especially for the famous, seems to be to make up names or use unusual forenames for their children. Be careful that your names are credible.

3. Personality

Have you ever had to change a character’s name because it didn’t suit their personality or because your character simply rebelled against that name? Dickens was the master at making up names that reflected the personality of his characters. Think about Squeers, Bumble, Scrooge or Toodle and how those made-up names reflected the individuality of the characters.

4. Ethnicity

Children are sometimes named after the place they were born or conceived – Brittany, for example or Sienna. Certain names tend to be linked to areas. Scott or Brad may be American. Apollo and Acacia are possibly Greek and Vikram and Ameera may be Indian. Then again, they may not. These days people borrow names from other cultures because they like the sound or perhaps because of the meaning of the name.

5. Geography

Places have names too and your setting can play a huge part in your story. If you are not going to set your story in a real place, what are you going to call it? Even in the UK places names are evocative of regions and hold meaning all of their own. Dylan Thomas invented Llaregubb as the name for the town in for Under Milkwood. It sounds Welsh, just as places with a prefix Bally could be Scottish or Irish.

On reflection perhaps it would be easier to write fantasy so that you could make up your own names for people and places.

So, what’s in a name? What problems have you had with naming your characters or settings? Do you have a rule to follow or a system that enables you to choose the right name or do you let your characters tell you what they want to be called? The topic has given us plenty of food for thought.

Keep writing.