I have two words for you here.
You know, when it comes to naming your characters, a little thought can go a long, long way. What in heck was Fenimore Cooper smoking, do you think? Do you suppose he sat there at his desk, pen in hand, thinking “Hey, I’m going to write a whole series of books here about a man who’s half poet/half woodsman, and have him running about the American forests having adventures with the French and the Indians… what’ll be a good name for a man like that, a man who will be a diamond in the rough, who will have a purity of heart and mind beneath his frontiersman garb? A man who will show us a way of life that’s closer to nature and to the elements and that has a simplicity and even a sort of innocence that we, in our so-called civilisation, have lost and can’t regain? A man who will embody the sheer, heart-stopping romance, the thrilling adventure and the blood-tingling excitement of the frontier? Oh, I know! I’ll call him Natty Bumppo.”
I mean, didn’t the man know that even if a reader got through prose so dense you could use it for radiation shielding, that no one could take seriously a man called Natty Bumppo? Could you? Seriously?
Two more words.
Well, whatever Jane Austen was smoking when she came up with that one, could I have some please? If ever there were a perfect name for a character, don’t you think Mr Darcy has it? Solid worth… check. Aristocratic connexions… check. Hundreds of years of privilege and a family that probably came over with the Conqueror… check. Riches and education… check. Pride… check. A handsome name to denote a handsome, attractive man… check. Brooding romantic hero… double check with knobs on. It works. It works perfectly. Mr Darcy is the quintessential romantic male lead, and how much of that is supported and enhanced by that perfect romantic name? After all, do you think he’d be as iconic if he were called Egbert Shuckleman?
All right, being English, white and privileged, I am no doubt bringing all my own baggage to bear there, and undoubtedly to some different place and culture, Egbert Shuckleman might be the man all maidens dream of. But that aside, my point here really is that the Bard was way, way out of line with the words he put in Juliet’s mouth about roses smelling as sweet even if (to sort of quote the immortal Anne) you called it a skunk-cabbage. And if he’d ever run across our friend Natty, I’m sure the Bard would own to his mistake.
Naming your characters is incredibly important. Apart from allowing the reader to track who everyone is and who’s doing what in the plot, a good name supports the characterisation. It becomes the character. It has to fit. Not only does it need to fit his or her personality and story arc, it has to be of the right time and place, be memorable, have significance, yet not be gimmicky or over-exotic—unless, maybe, you’re writing for the daytime soaps. It takes a little more effort than thumbing idly through a baby names book.
In the Taking Shield series, I was looking for names for my two male lead characters. One, the hero, is the eldest son of a Fleet commander. He’s rich and privileged, well educated, and has had doors opened to him all his life. He hates that. He wants to earn his way on merit. He isn’t flashy or exotic. He’s governed by the principles his family live by, what he calls the family ‘triple goddess’ – honour, duty and service. I needed a name that sounds solid, that can be shortened into a nickname that only the other male lead can use, but that isn’t too pretentious or overly aristocratic (no Fitzwilliam here, sadly). For days I thought about—and rejected—solid old fashioned names such as Edmund or Nicholas (both briefly in the running) and finally ended up with Bennet. To this day, I can’t say why there was a large click! and an equally large light bulb going off when I added that name to my possibles list, but Bennet it is. It works for him. It gives him a slightly earnest feel, a seriousness, a feeling of solidity.
His love interest, on the other hand, was named in twenty seconds flat—and not by me, but by a friend, over lunch. I was bewailing the difficulty of naming a cheerful, ne’er-do-well, devil-may-care Fleet pilot, who loves life and embraces it with huge-hearted fervour; a gambler, a chancer, a man who dances his way through life, taking nothing seriously. Certainly one who’s never taken love seriously, although he is wildly enthusiastic about sex. Brave, loyal, skilled—and insubordinate, free-thinking, independent… a sort of intensely attractive rapscallion floozy.
At this point, J took a sip of her Chablis, rolled her eyes and said. “Flynn.”
I stopped in mid-word, the wind most decidedly taken out of the sails. Flynn. Of course! Perfect. And so Flynn he’s been, for several weeks longer than Bennet has been Bennet.
Those names work for the characters. They’ve become the characters. I could no more, at this stage, change either of those names without having to seriously rewrite their entire characterisation than I could walk on the floods in the Thames Valley. My characters are Bennet and Flynn, not Edward and Rod, or James and Luke.
Bennet and Flynn.
So, how did you come to name your characters, and how important are their names to you? Do share!