Guest Post: What’s in a Name?

This is a guest post by Jim Napier.

The buzzword in writing fiction these days is “write character-driven stories.”

It’s become our mantra. Plots, actions, and even settings take second place in creating a gripping believable story featuring three-dimensional characters. People who readers can relate to. But too often creating effective names for those characters is a neglected aspect of fiction writing, given only passing attention.

That’s unfortunate because naming a character often plays an important role in the success – or failure – of our literary efforts. Often the first, or among the first, hints the reader encounters to a character’s personality (and thus to their actions) is contained in the name that character is given. Think of Dickens – characters such as Mr. McCawber, or Uriah Heap, Oliver Twist, or Ebenezer Scrooge: all capture the essence of their namesakes, even before their actions or dialogue can reveal their personalities more graphically.

And the importance of names is not lost on actors themselves, who sometimes abandon their birth identities, which may be bland, confusing, difficult, or simply ridiculous, to adopt a more effective stage persona. Thus the villainous-suggestive Archibald Leach becomes the suave and sophisticated Cary Grant, the androgynously-named Marion Morrison becomes the two-fisted brawler John Wayne, and with only a minimum of effort the self-effacing and slightly ridiculous Elmore Rual Torn, Jr adopts the delightfully graphic name of Rip Torn.

Wisely chosen names can help to clarify the setting, time, ethnicity, and social standing to clarify a character’s personality. A kitchenmaid at Downton Abbey named Daisy seems perfectly at home, whereas naming one of the entitled sisters upstairs Daisy would seem decidedly odd. The sage-like (and thus classically-named) Atticus Finch seems perfectly at home in his role as one of his town’s leading influencers in To Kill a Mockingbird, and his impetuous tomboy daughter Scout also seems appositely-named. When the redneck sheriff in The Head of the Night asks a black stranger with the classical given name of Virgil in town what he’s called, his memorable response is “They call me Mister Tibbs!”

The names of characters also can affect their interactions. Writers need to avoid cumbersome exchanges between people with difficult-to-pronounce names, or alternatively characters with similar names that are easily confused (Tony and Anthony, “Miss” or “Mister” in situations where more than one character could be understood).

A brief sampler of influential names would have to include Sam Spade, “Dirty Harry Callahan, and Casper Q. Milquetoast. And from my own writing, I would add Prunella Butterfield, Mrs. Twigg (pun), Colin McDermott, George Ridley, Georgina Stanhope, Caroline “Thorny” Bryer, Sam Loach, Jonti Sharma, MP Zoe Selkirk and her husband Sir John Selkirk, Maurice Graves (what else? A pathologist), Joseph Ndege (an immigrant from Tanzania), Dr. Felix de Groot, Serbian illegal immigrant Tomås Pétrovic, Dr. Gerhard Bauer, Mick Brennan (ne’er do well ex of DSgt Wilhemena Quinn) and their son, Dylan Quinn

Give some thought to how your character’s first and last names work together. A Long or formal first name often benefits from a nickname (Samantha/Sammy), and generally speaking avoid putting long or complex first names together with equally difficult surnames (Krishnamurti Sankaramanchi)

A closing tip: start a names bank suggesting personalities or character traits you think might be useful in future writing projects. Collect interesting names from tv/film credits, cemeteries (and keep track of which ones you use in a current work, so you don’t overuse them)

– Just a few thoughts as I jump back into writing Family Matters, my own latest work about a Tanzanian orphan adopted by a British missionary couple, who finds himself in London, nearly three decades later, confronting the tragedy of his past…

After a successful academic career at the college and university levels which included teaching both crime fiction and creative writing, Jim turned to writing full time. Since then Jim has published nearly six hundred reviews, interviews, and articles about crime writers, both in print and on multiple Internet sites. In 2011 Jim contributed to an anthology on the craft of crime writing titled Now Write! Mysteries, published by Tarcher/Penguin. Legacy is the first novel in the Colin McDermott series; Ridley’s War, the second; and the third novel is slated for release in 2022.

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