The Name Game, by Jeanette Greaves

With the giving of a name comes great responsibility. The naming of a child holds huge importance, we have ceremonies to celebrate name giving, and parents-to-be are deluged under the opinions and desires of friends and family. A child’s name holds the key to its future, will it be a cool name, or one that will precipitate a hellish childhood of teasing. Can it be shortened to something catchy, or is there the potential for cruelty in the combination of first name and surname, of initials and surname. What devilry can be teased from the combination of letters that will make up the child’s initials?

And yet, a child can escape, if her will is strong enough. She can invent her own name, or sympathetic relatives can bestow upon her a new name, which may be adopted with relief. At the age of majority, a hated name can be cast aside, and a new one, that more properly reflects the person within, can be chosen.

The naming of a fictional character is equally important, perhaps more, as they are fixed forever. Names carry associations with them. A writer’s ‘Stanley’ may be crafted with the brawny and sexually charged Stanley Kowalski in mind, but if the image conjured is of Stanley Laurel or Coronation Street’s Stanley Ogden, then all is lost.

A slight difference in spelling can make all the difference to a name. In a recent workshop, I read a short descriptive piece about an arrogant young man intent on making his mark. The feedback came fast … Harold was a poor choice of name, it brought images of timid, lonely, bespectacled middle aged men. I clarified, my character was Harald, with an A. Suddenly, everything was fine. The ‘a’ made all the difference. A Catherine is not the same as a Katherine. Our expectations of Amy and Aimiee are very different.

A story set in the present day, in the author’s own familiar locations, presents the easiest scenario. The author will be plugged into the zeitgeist, and will have an understanding of the cycle of names through the years. A Keira, Keanu or Keifer plugged into a 1970s flashback will jar in the reader’s mind, as will a very young Jean, Carol or Mavis born in the 21st century. Sometimes the character requires an unusual or jarring name, even if only to make a point about their origin.

Historical stories present the opportunity to lace a story with unusual names that lend a touch of authority. Graveyards were traditionally the writer’s source for names from different decades, but there are lists online now. Still, to get a local feel, it’s worth visiting a graveyard in the area concerned.

Stories set in another country present their own challenge, the same rules apply, as names go in and out of fashion wherever you set the story, but there’s the additional challenge of finding memorable names that will set easy with the reader.

Fans of science fiction and fantasy are usually willing to give the writer some leeway with character names, and many books have followed Tolkien’s convention of developing an artificial system of naming for characters of different species. It doesn’t take long, when travelling through Middle Earth, to pick up the conventions for Men, Elves, Hobbits and Dwarves. Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon books introduce unusual names too, but she developed a strong convention that allowed the reader to quickly establish which characters were male or female, human or dragon, by name alone.

In the novel (unpublished) that I accidentally wrote several years ago, I met my characters before I knew their names. I had, initially, three men and a woman. The men were easy to name, they were born in the same decade as me, and I simply chose the first three male names that came to mind from my primary school classmates. It’s worked well, and they quickly settled into the names. The female character made my life difficult, she simply refused to tell me her name, and I was forced to write in the first person to get around the problem. People addressed her with affectionate familiarity as ‘honey’, ‘love’ and sometimes just ‘hey’. I’d finished the book before I found out that she was named Diana. If I accepted that, what would my readers see? Would it be the hunter goddess, or the sugarpaste ‘people’s princess’? I’m still not sure, but my fiery heroine was adamant, and she’s Diana now, whatever my wishes might be.

Jeanette Greaves has been writing fiction for fun for the last eight years, and still spends hours trying to find the right name for a character. She does, however, have enough self control not to name a werewolf ‘Lupus’. She blogs at http://www.bloginbasket.com .

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