Guest Post: The Parts of Naming Your Main Character

Kevin Thornton

This is a guest post by Kevin Thornton.

What to call your main character?

I write an occasional short story series where one of the lead characters is a gay Sergeant in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In what I hope was nothing more than a colossal Freudian slip, I named the character Ramsbottom. What’s more, it took three stories before anyone else noticed.

He has since been changed.

Names can be important, they can be indicators or even the opposite. Take George Smiley. Amid all the evil and duplicity Smiley creates and reacts to, he has a name more suited to Tin Pan Alley. Clearly Le Carre was having fun.

Elsewhere Ian Fleming named his spy after an ornithologist, hoping that the mildness would act as a counter to a man with a license to kill. The jury is still out. Sometimes an author can almost be too clever. Michael Connelly has managed to get away with a character called Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch, but it took some back-splain tap-dancing. All his other protagonists since then have not been as uncomfortably encumbered; Cassie Black, Jack McEvoy and Renee Ballard, among others, do not distract as much as the eponymous tortured artist.

Spelling is another potential quagmire. Wilbur Smith, with his first hero Sean Courtney, was rumoured to have been so tired of the mispronunciations (Seen instead of Shaun) that he subjected all his future characters to a simplicity test. There were no Siobhans (Che-vonne) Dukes of Worcestershire (Duke of Wuster) or the like in any of his future works.

Reginald Hill travailed down Wilbur’s path, or did he? He had Peter Pascoe – strong, simple, and forthright – with Andy Dalziel, pronounced Dee-ell, who was cunning, suspicious and devious. Did the names match the characters, or shape them? We’ll never know. Even though it doesn’t spell well, Andy Dalziel works far better as a boisterous copper than other famous fictional Yorkshiremen; Siegfried Farnon, say, or Robinson Crusoe.

For the less complicated, there are singular characters: Lovejoy, Westlake’s Parker, Parker’s Spenser. There is also Pronzini’s unnamed hero, the ultimate in simplicity. In these few cases they work because the writers are so talented. The rest of us can take advantage of the opportunity to give birth to a character and christen him appropriately. He should if possible be memorable: Reacher, Flavia de Luce, Precious Ramotswe, Lucas Davenport, Armand Gamache. Even John Sandford’s other protagonist’s name gains more character when his peers talk behind his back, and the mild Virgil Flowers becomes the more menacing ‘that fucking Flowers’. Good writing will always trump an unfortunate name choice but good writing and a good name will capture your reader’s imagination.

There can also be danger in creative nomenclature. Often I have read a story where I can pick the murder just by his name. If you find that you are telegraphing your plot – names like Lex Q. Skullduggery or Damon Lucifer the third may not help – there are solutions. The first is to use a phone book, while they still exist, or a random name generator. The other is to ask a friend. I have used the names of people I like for the most miserable fictional dregs of humanity. The worse the character is, the more they delight. In my writings I have made murderers out of my friends and scum of my neighbours, and they have loved me for it.

Favourites? It’s hard to quarrel with the greats – Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot – but I still think the best name in crime fiction is Gervase Fen. Edmund Crispin’s Oxford Professor may be the perfect marriage of character and attitude. If you have a better one, please list it below.

Kevin Thornton for Writers First

Kevin P. Thornton has lived or worked in Nairobi, Upper Hutt, Boksburg, Kabul, Ladysmith, London, Dubai, Pretoria and others. Now in Fort McMurray, he is currently a writer and poet, and formerly a soldier in Africa and a military contractor in the Middle East. He is a member of The Keys, the Writers’ Guild founded by G. K. Chesterton and Msgr. Ronald Knox, and a current or former member of the Crime Writers of Canada, the Arts Council of Wood Buffalo, the Fort McMurray Heritage Society, the CWA, ITW, MWA, WGA, SMFS, and delightfully the Mesdames of Mayhem. He spends his life attending meetings.

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