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The Write Stuff: A Rose by any other name would smell as sweet

By David Flin

Tell that to the House of York. Names are important. If you’re writing a story, and you’re not using historical figures, then you’re going to be giving the characters names. Names have power. The name of a character imparts images to the reader. These images may differ from reader to reader, but they can be powerful. It’s important to get the name right.

For example, if you give a character the name Rock Mastiff, most readers are going to have an image conjured to mind. If you then make that character a shy, nervous concert pianist full of a plethora of fears, it’s likely that the reader will have some dissonance. This may be intentional. Arthur C. Clarke wrote a story, The Reluctant Orchid, in which the central character is named Hercules Keating. Clarke makes the point that the timid, mild-mannered Hercules grew up with that name hanging over him, with negative consequences that are revealed in the story. Clarke makes the dissonance a fundamental part of the story.

We can take another example. If you call a character “David Flin”, readers will instantly know that this character is handsome, intelligent, witty, honourable, reliable, kind, courteous, charming, and devastatingly attractive (Ed: All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. Names, and characters, are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental).

The name conjures up an image of the character. Getting the name right can be time-consuming, and it is very easy to spend too much time on it, but it’s worth getting it right, because these characters are the central struts of your story.

Names are also a very useful way of conveying a feeling of time and place. If you call a character Shane, then one immediately thinks of either an Australian cricketer, or an Essex boy. The right name can help to create a feel for an era, and can be a much-neglected part of world-building.

I’ll use Bring Me My Bow as a worked example, to show what I was thinking when choosing names for the characters. The book is set in the 1920s, so I needed to use period names. Names like Tracey, Shane, and Buzz would cause the reader to blink. Even names that can be justified need to be considered with care. They might be genuine, but if they don’t feel right, you’ve got a problem.

For the central character, I needed a serviceable first name that could be applied to any social status. The character would be doing a lot of shifting through different classes, and while surnames could be changed, constant changing of the first name would be confusing for the reader. Thomas struck me as being a good, plain, unassuming name. It implies a slight relation with the apostle Thomas, most famous for doubting. Since the character starts by harbouring doubts about life in general, and his role in it, Thomas felt right.

He was also from the upper echelons of society, more or less, but going to take on a position among the lower strata – specifically, as a soldier in the rank and file. Changing a surname was easy enough to deal with, and wouldn’t confuse the readers.

The lower name was easy enough. The right level of social acceptance would be achieved by an archetypical Irish name. “No Irish here” was a common enough sign of the period. That lead me in short order to O’Grady.

I had more difficulty with the upper name. I looked through lists of names of nobility of the period, and none really felt right. I toyed with a number of ideas, but none of them felt quite right. Then luck struck. I was reading about early scientific experiments in determining the gravitational constant, which led me to the work of Henry Cavendish.

That was the name of the central character sorted. Thomas O’Grady, originally Thomas Cavendish.

I needed a name for his buddy in the Regiment. Since I had drawn some of the inspiration for the character on one of my grandfathers, it was a relatively easy matter to use his name. Hence Francesco Barrilari came to life; obviously, the Regiment was not going to bother with such a mouthful, and he’s called Frank Barry, retaining the formal name for special occasions.

The third character I looked at for naming purposes was the nurse. I needed a name that gave an impression of pragmatic, dependable common sense. The first name I wanted to be strongly rooted in the period, so I looked around my family tree (I guess it’s more of a family giant hogweed). My mother’s aunts looked to be a hopeful source of possibilities. Anne, Florence, Emily, and Margaret.

Anne and Margaret weren’t specific enough to the period. Florence didn’t sound right to my ear. Emily, however, seemed to fit the bill.

Then I needed a surname. I tried the sound of the name with different numbers of syllables in the surname, and a three-syllable surname seemed to work the best. I was reading the diaries of Sister Edith Appleton, and a surname ending in -ton seemed to fall into place. From there it was just a matter of playing around with sounds until I ended up with Charrington.

That was how Thomas O’Grady, Francesco Barrilari, and Emily Charrington got their names.

One thing I would advise is to not go for some of the more obscure naming patterns. The period I was writing about had some strange first names. For example, I could have selected period names for the three characters above, genuine names that were inflicted upon real children, and my story would have revolved around Leicester Railway Carriage O’Grady, One Too Many Barrilari, and Faith Hope Anne Charrington.

The names might be period, but no-one, not even me, could have taken the characters seriously.


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David Flin is the author of the SLP books Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow