Ceri Shaw


 

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A rose by any other name.... Naming characters in your fictional works

user image 2021-06-12
By: Ceri Shaw
Posted in: Guest Articles

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Visit Barrie Doyle's website here


One of the fun things about writing works of fiction is the excitement of meeting my characters for the first time.

Over the period of a year or so, I will meet them, name them, give them bodies and personalities and watch them develop into viable and, hopefully, believable people.

Some, I will like. Others not. Some will have strange quirks. Others will be fairly normal, even bland, people.

All will be wound together into a strange and dangerous situation that will challenge them and perhaps even destroy them. Some will pass the test. Others will fail. Still others will not survive. Some will be major protagonists or antagonists while others will be peripheral but perhaps quirky bystanders who help move the main characters along.

To me, the naming of the character is critical. The name must be memorable, give hints of the character and his or her role or background. Even if the person’s personality is astoundingly normal, he or she needs a name that will stand out for the reader while also not confusing that reader with a similar-named character at some other point in the book.

I find this a tremendously challenging but rewarding aspect of writing.

It became even more challenging when I wrote  Musick for the King.  This novel revolved around the remarkable creation and presentation of one of the most acclaimed and loved pieces of music,  Messiah,  by the composer George Frederick Handel. My major characters—Handel, King George, the singer Susanna Cibber, Jonathan Swift and others—already had their names. For me, naming the minor characters that help the plot along was the issue. In an age with too many Georges, Thomases, Williams, Marys and so on, it was no easy task.

The same applies to my suspense-thriller series  The Oak Grove Conspiracies . There, naming characters is compounded by the story settings. Wales, Italy, Turkey, the US—all requiring believable yet typical names from those nations.

 

Compounding this is the Welsh penchant for repeating names (Thomas Thomas, William Williams, Evan Evans and so on) as well as their extreme refusal to come up with different surnames. Everyone, it seems, is a Jones, Williams, Jenkins or Davies!

Indeed, the Welsh came up with a unique way of differentiating various individuals bearing the same surnames. Thus, the storeowner Evans became Evans the Shop, while the preacher Evans became Evans the Bible and Evans the bus driver was inevitably Evans the Bus. Plus, of course, Evans the Post, Evans the Meat and Evans the School. Then too there was Mrs. Evans Lamppost (of the four Mrs. Evans’s on the street, she was the one who had a lamppost outside her front door). There was even poor Evans Bungalow (he didn’t have too much on top) and Evans Half Step who had one leg shorter than the other.

See my dilemma? Try and come up with some interesting names for a fictional thriller when facing those challenges. Finding ethnic names for characters situated in places like Istanbul or Venice was a piece of cake by comparison!

Sometimes you can create a character and his name just pops out of nowhere but is perfect because it hints at some characteristic or background without being too blatant.

For example, my lead modern-day character in the  Oak Grove Conspiracies  series is Bradstone Wallace, known as ‘Stone’. The name implies a stalwart character—one who strong, resolute and is a ‘stone wall’, resolute and unmoving in times of danger. Or his intelligence buddy Chad Lawson, whose name quietly invokes a heritage of law keeping.

Sometimes I envy the novelists of earlier generations who named their characters blatantly and somewhat ridiculously based upon their overwhelming distinctive attribute rather than develop names that reflected their era.

Henry Fielding, for example, writes about a character named Mr. Thwackum—a particularly brutal teacher and clergyman. Charles Dickens was the master of such made up but infinitely evocative names. Can anyone top Ebenezer Scrooge, Uriah Heep or Wackford Squeers? Then there’s Fagin, Oliver Twist, the Barnacle family and Martin Chizzlewit. Memorable, if unusual, names. Certainly not the norm in Victorian England.

Naming a character means giving them a cloak of identity. It sets them in a place and in a space that they and they alone can operate in and define. It expresses their personality or attributes in subtle or not too subtle ways and gives them parameters in which they will conduct the business of moving the plot along.

Their name must be a major part of what makes them memorable to the reader. The reader must remember the evil this individual perpetuates, or the compassion they display and passion they evoke.

The novelist plays with names. You try different first and last names, middle names, or nicknames in order to find the ‘perfect’ combination. In my book The Prince Madoc Secret I had fun with one minor Welsh character whom I named Evan Thomas. He was therefore given the nickname ‘ET” and was the exact opposite of the movie ET in terms of size and volubility.

I am now engaged in creating and naming a series of characters for the fourth installment of the  Oak Grove Conspiracies  titled  “The Dragon’s Legacy”.  Some of the main characters will reappear of course, but there is a new set of bad guys, a whole whack of peripheral characters in various eras and a slew of historical characters such as Merriweather Lewis (Lewis & Clark Expedition) and US President Thomas Jefferson, among others. I’ve got my work cut out for me.

There are many memorable characters to be found in novels. People you get to love or admire; people who make you shudder in fear, or who baffle you with their wild actions or decisions. There are characters you meet once and will never encounter again. Others you will come across in a number of books that become your favourites and valued old friends.

What are the names of some of your favourite characters in novels, and why? Sherlock Holmes? Frodo or Bilbo Baggins? Lucy Pevensie, Hercule Poirot? How about Harry Potter, Atticus Finch, James Bond, Mary Poppins, Miss Marple or Winnie the Pooh?

So many to choose from in so many genres—mysteries, fantasy, thrillers, historical, romance—the list goes on,

I would love to hear from you. Please comment. 

Kindest regards

Barrie Doyle

www.barriedoyle.com

Author of the Oak Grove Conspiracies novels and "Musick for the King"

crisis management and training  www.notifwhen.ca