24 Apr

One of the first things that you have to decide when writing a story is what names to assign to the characters.  For some writers this is a quick and instinctive act and not something to be dwelt upon. In my view, it is worth spending time to get the right name as it is an essential first step to character creation.

Some of the most memorable characters from literature have names that evoke something of their personalities. Heathcliff - wild man of the Yorkshire moors, Ebeneezer Scrooge - the miserly curmedgeon and the high-spirited Scarlett O'Hara have all been very carefully and cleverly named. Some literary names have come to embody their characters to such an extent that they have become synonymous with their main characteristics. If we referred to someone as a veritable Sherlock or a right Romeo, everyone would understand what qualities were being described.

However, even if a writer doesn't have the same talent for naming characters as Charles Dickens or Willilam Shakespeare had, there are still some practical principles that should be followed.

Firstly, if you make the names too difficult or overlong then your reader may give up on your story. A futuristic novel with Xyzzindayfor and Qatiibinchegway as the main characters is not going to be easy to digest.

At the same time, simple names can pose a problem if you fill your story with a lot of similarly named characters. Suzanne, Susie, Sally, Sadie and Sandy as a group of best friends, for example, will leave your readers in a state of perpetual confusion.

When deciding on a name it's also important to ask yourself if the name is appropriate to the time period or geographical setting. This may involve reading books set in a similar era or even visiting the odd graveyard. You might look at the meaning the meaning of a name and assign it to your character to match their personality; a wise Sophia or Takeo the strong. Of course, you could also subvert this by naming a demure and modest girl, Jezebel!

There is also the question of a character's background and social standing which can be inferred by a name. To British ears, the name Rupert Fotheringay, for example, sounds like someone who has been to private school and has wealthy parents. Kev Jenkins, on the other hand,  might suggest more of a working class background. However, it's important not to be too rigid and prescriptive in assigning names.  There might be an interesting story as to why a girl from a working class family is called Cordelia.

A character might also be known by a nickname or a pet name, and differently by different people. This gives the reader an added insight into their relationshiops.

With the novel that I am currently writing - The Unmasking - I have tried to apply some of these principles to my main characters which I've detailed below:

Anna Anastasiou.   A Greek Cypriot, young detective inspector. At school, kids made fun of her surname, giving her the nickname ‘Nasty girl.’ She is known as Annoulla by her family.

Callum Hunter –  Scottish Chief Inspector. The surname Hunter is apt for a police officer hunting criminals and is played on by the press. E.g. Hunter, ready to give up the chase? Usually known just as Hunter or Sir.

The Barber - serial killer who cuts off his victims's hair. Sounds like the word 'barbarous' and might remind the reader of Sweeny Todd - the murderous barber of Fleet Street.

Sabine Mayer  – German potential victim. Her name is German but it’s not too difficult for an English reader. Known as Sabbie.


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