I recently discovered that my name is literary in more than one way. I have long known that my first name was invented by RD Blackmore for his Cornish heroine Lorna Doone. But I didn't know till last week that my surname also has a literary association. 'Mrs Partington and her mop' is a character used in early 20th-century satirical prose and plays as symbolic of futile conservativism, the ineffectual resistance to the rising tide of progress. This discovery prompted some thought about the importance of naming characters.
Parents often find naming their child a little tricky; it's a big responsibility, after all. Clearly, it's a matter of personal taste, but it's very often influenced by current celeb trends (wait for the boom in Lilibets) and/or historic connotation (Adolf, Oswald or Enoch will always raise eyebrows). Like a parent, the author must also find the right names, but for a whole cast of characters, which is not as straightforward as you might think.
The author must take into account:
1. Convention. Genre fiction often has naming conventions (e.g., you're unlikely to find an Elf King named Bob Jones). Similarly, fiction set in the real world will be populated by characters with everyday names, unless their parents are particularly eccentric or they give themselves a more interesting nickname.
2. Time/Place. Research the setting of your story so that you don't call your heroine 'Mary' if they're French, or 'Kylie' if they're born in the 1800's!
3. Readability. A character might have a hard-to-pronounce birth name, but try giving them a nickname that's easy for the reader.
4. Memorability. This is particularly important in a large cast of characters. Avoid using names for other characters that sound similar to your protagonist's (e.g., Lorna, Lauren, Lara, Laura).
5. Connotation. What does the name tell us about the character? A skinny, diminutive hero unironically named 'Hercules' will be hard to take seriously. But a well-chosen name can be an effective way to create an impression of, or offer insight into, a character.
Dickens is king of character naming; so much so that his names have become bywords for archetypes in our culture, e.g., Miss Havisham and Ebenezer Scrooge. But often the names he assigns are a bit obvious, caricaturing the heroes and villains and patronising the reader.
Other writers have used a character's name as a literary device. Again, it's hard to ignore the protagonist of Lolita: Humbert Humbert is a pseudonym adopted by the narrator that adds to his unreliability. Mystery writer Colin Dexter withholds the first name of Inspector Morse as a way to give the protagonist his own air of mystery before revealing it to be Endeavour, which is a suitably impressive name. But less accomplished writers often fall into the trap of using a name that's too self-consciously clever or quirky, forgetting that plain can be just as effective. Names don't get much plainer than Harry Potter!
Inspiration for names can come from any source: nature, mythology, the art world, popular culture, the writer's own life, a directory ... the list goes on. Sometimes the right name exists from the start; at other times, it will reveal itself to the author as he/she gets to know the character during the writing process. But if you're truly stuck, help is available via online name generators, including one in the writing programme Scrivener.
Now, I must go. There's a tsunami that needs my attention!
Lorna Partington Walsh, Wordsmith