Naming names – and fictional characters

The list of most favoured names for girl and boy babies in 2013 in England and Wales has just come out. I always find this fascinating, and not just as a writer.

I’m amazed to see Elsie, Ivy and Violet climbing up the top 100 girls’ names because (due to my advanced age, my dears!) I associate these names with ancient great-aunties and comedy cleaning ladies in old films. It took me a while to get used to little babies called Alfred, Arthur and Albert, too. Though the renewed popularity of these names has been going on much longer, to me they were still elderly gentlemen with white whiskers.

Fashions in names come and go and you see this in reflected in books. When I was a child the adventure stories I read were full of characters called Jane, Susan, Anne, Peter, John, Roger, Philip – plain no-nonsense names that had been popular for several decades – with the occasional Pam, Pauline, Sandra and Nigel thrown in. There were still plenty of kids at school with these names (along with more modern and fancy ones) but they tended to have morphed into casual Pete, Sue, Rog, Sandy etc. And the only Nigel I knew in real life was a cat!

Choosing names for fictional characters is soo-o important. It feels completely make-or-break. Sometimes the name comes before anything else, tugging at your imagination to find out more. Or name-plus-character jump into existence virtually fully-formed. But when they don’t, it can be such a struggle, trying and chucking aside name after name. You might come up with a good first name, but can’t find the right surname to go with it, or vice versa. Should it fit the era the book is set in, or stand out as unusual? If it’s strange or fanciful, how does the character  feel about their name? Books of baby names and old telephone directories can be very helpful here, if you get desperate.

With two books out titled The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth and The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard I think it’s clear that I like to have fun with names. It really helps that I’m writing period fiction (set in the late Victorian era) and there’s quite a big dollop of comedy in them, too. Both these names came to me as a gift, before the rest of the stories; as did most of the other characters’ who followed.

But one name in Gully Potchard had to be changed. I hadn’t noticed but my eagle-eyed editor spotted it. (That’s what editors are for, among other things.) She pointed out that it was too similar to Agnes, a lead character, and when they shared scenes it could be muddling. I am so fond of the original name I’m not going to tell you what it is, in case I can use it somewhere else. But, oh, the agony of finding an alternative that I liked as much and that I felt truly worked. I needed a new surname, but none of them fitted with the original (non-confusing) first name, so both had to go. I had to find something apt for a highly colourful lady, a middle-aged ex-actress, hen-enthusiast and fortune-teller, and one of the helpful adults in the tale. After much heart-ache I finally came up with Mrs Verona Leaf. I’ll leave it to readers to judge if it suits her. 

The book I’m currently working on is set in the 1920s, so that’s a whole different set of names to research and choose from.

Do you have an unusual name or one that’s typical of the year you were born in? And how do you feel about it?

11 thoughts on “Naming names – and fictional characters

    • Hi Laura,
      There are lots of good connotations with laurel trees – crowning the winner with laurel leaves etc. In Italy friends put laurel crowns round students’ head when they graduate (and throw them in fountains, too!) You are a laureate! You sound very happy with your name…?

  1. I am so glad to read this post! I I have always wondered how characters in books get their names. I know a great deal of research goes into writing: understanding the era, place and history of a time you are setting your characters in, you don’t want to give a totally 21 century name to a 19 century character; but do the characters suggest their names?

    Say you are convinced that your first female character should be Jane, but you just can’t seem to get her story line started until you find her a name she “like”; does that happen?

    • That’s a good question. But I can’t imagine sticking with an idea for a name for a single second longer than it takes to realise that it is blocking everything else. Besides, lively characters feel so real that they insist on getting their way. You wouldn’t deliberately give a friend a nick-name you knew they hated, would you?

      By the way, your own name is pretty impressive.

  2. There were lots of Joannas at my school (and Joannes) and I meet loads of women my own age who are Jo – but the name seems to have fallen out of favour in the past twenty years and I haven’t met a child called Jo (apart from boys called Joe) on any of my school visits!

    I really liked the name Iris when I was pregnant with my first daughter, but my mum felt the same way you did: ‘Iris?? Really? But that’s – such an ancient auntie name!’
    I went off it after that 😉

    • Yes, the curse of ancient-auntie and ancient-uncle names! I like Iris, too, and I think it’s had a bit of a return to form recently with real little ones. (Maybe younger than your first daughter?) But there are some names that never make it. Lots of Auntie Joyces when I was little but I’ve not come across any younger Joyces.

      As for Joanne and Joanna, there were a few – and a Josephine – when I was at school and it was a name I was very envious of (loved Jo in ‘Little Women’, of course). Perhaps it became *so* popular that everyone grew tired of it.

      I could talk about names for ever….

  3. mu name is pretty normal and boring (Becky) but my friend has a great name ‘Loushae’ (pronounced loo-shay) it’s really different but cool.
    I like unusual names and write them down when I find them.

  4. My name is Brianna which is rare in this country but quite common in America. I was named after a singer in the beautiful south (which I don’t really have an idea who they are). My mum thought about calling me Roberta or Connie but everyone else thought the names were too old fashioned. I’m just glad I have the name I got.

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