On Wednesday at Renegades, Barry had totally unwittingly used the name Bill for a character who he had called Len for many chapters. It is very easy to do, I have done it often, especially when someone doesn’t appear for a while. I keep a log of all names, birthdates, relationships and so on to refer to. Also useful when someone disappears in a story without reason, just that you’ve forgotten to continue with them!
The characters in your stories become like friends, partners, children or enemies, close to your heart, they live sometimes more than the living do, perhaps because you know their innermost thoughts and secrets. But how do you name them?
Iris Murdoch writes about groups of often highly intellectual people who are set against a moral quandary. She names them so you don’t forget them, and the sorts of names you would notice, Crimmond comes to mind, the Oxford philosopher who effects nearly all the characters in The Book and the Brotherhood. I could immediately see him.
I look at the class, country and period they were born. I often use royal names, there were a lot of Elizabeth’s in the late 40’s early 50’s. As a bit of irony in Underpainting (which I am preparing for Kindle publishing at the moment), a left-wing Scot has called his five children Elizabeth, Philip, Anne, Charles and Diana! They are known to all as the Royal Family. They call him King Billy, which has many other connotations! In the late 40’s early 50’s many children of ex-soldiers had names after the war heroes, Winston and Montgomery. 80’s children incongruously called after Australian soap stars. These names can immediately set their cultural background, and be a conversation point in the story.
If I am stuck especially for minor characters I tend to run my finger along the book shelves, stop at a book to get the first name, then again for surname. I couldn’t think what to call a shadowy figure in the piece I am currently writing and put my finger on Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey, and that was perfect, Mr Strachey, I could immediately see him.
A name can help a lot to tell a character’s backstory without ‘telling’. In Underpainting one of the two central characters is Marianne, but her real name which only her mother uses is Mary Ann. However a friend at art college in the late 60’s, who reappears in her life, called her Marianne after the Leonard Cohen song, and everyone else use it. Also in that story I have an African American (I apologise if I use the wrong terminology) character who has a Polish name, with the back story that a poor family of Polish decent took her in after her mother died when she was a baby. This then gave me some good issues to work with on identity, as it turns out she is probably half French!
It is part of the ‘art’ of writing and story-telling. Using a name that clashes is also a useful tool, often for effect but happens in real life. There are many people who ‘change’ their names to try and fit in. This can add a secret to a story, a great thing to have. Elvis Costello in I Don’t Want to go to Chelsea had that lovely line “They call her Natasha when she looks like Elsie”.
Finding the names for your characters is a very enjoyable part of writing and can often be the starting point. What can be very awkward is if you name someone closely to someone you know and you’ve used their characteristics, words and so forth, probably best to change their sex especially if it’s your partner!
Today’s photograph is lazytime! Looking out from my front window at the driving snow at about 11am.