This week we get some excellent advice for new writers on the issue of naming characters from Crime Cymru’s Gwen Parrott
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
For those of you who have read ‘how-to’ books on writing it will come as no surprise that naming your characters can be a minefield. You don’t want readers to give up on your story because they just can’t work out who people are.
One of the principal things we are all warned not to do is to give characters names beginning with the same letter. However, if you’re like me, when you’re naming, say, the members of a group of lads and you’ve decided to call the first one Daniel, the only names that spring to mind when naming the rest will be Dyfed, Dewi and David. Not a good idea. The same applies to names that rhyme. Nobody will be able to remember who’s who in a family comprising Gary, Barry and Harry.
So far, so obvious.
Yet, when I create characters for my two series, one set after the second World War and the other contemporary, I find that each series presents a different naming challenge. Having had to work through this, these are the criteria that I’ve found useful to consider.
No matter whether you’re writing contemporary or historical crime fiction, the age of a character will dictate what you call them. For historical crime fiction, make use of authors writing in the same period if you can – it was contemporary to them so the names will be current and believable. For modern day stories, the ‘Births, Marriages and Deaths’ page of newspapers can be a handy source of information if you’re stuck. Each newspaper aims at a certain demographic, so if you have ‘posh’ characters to name, try the Times or the Telegraph. For a story based in South Wales, the Western Mail may give you what you need. For North Wales, try the Liverpool Daily Post. The more local the paper, the more likely it is to carry such a page. It can be surprising to realise what older people, people of marriageable age and new babies are called. You may find, as I did when I encountered my first newborns called Diesel and Kylar, that your ideas are completely out of date!
Names go in and out of fashion – some have reappeared (Noah, Ivy, Archie) and some haven’t (Herbert, Doris, Enoch). I’m dismayed at how many people called ‘Janet’ and ‘Colin’ are appearing in the Deaths columns, because they were the names of my school contemporaries. At the other end of the tree of life, I haven’t seen a baby named ‘Gary’ for years.
The reason why age is such an important factor is that it holds true through all the other criteria. Age matters and it is so easy to strike a false note by getting it wrong.
If you want to create characters who come from another country or culture, you really need to do some research, especially if you’re unfamiliar with it. To keep your readers reading, the very last thing you want is to name characters inappropriately or offensively. Ideally, ask someone from that country or culture, always remembering that people have their own tastes and ideas. An example of how another country’s attitude towards names can trip you up is the fact that until 1993 France had a list of ‘approved’ first names. If you named your child something that was not on the list, they were quite likely to refuse to register the baby. Even now, you can be taken to court and your choice of name rejected if the judges consider it unsuitable – ‘Nutella’ being one of the rejects, unsurprisingly.
SOCIAL, RELIGIOUS OR POLITICAL BACKGROUND
Much as we’d like to think it doesn’t matter, the names we give characters can pinpoint their social background instantly. Note that I say ‘background’ – characters (like real people) have been named by their parents, and your character may embrace or be resentful of that background. Of all the criteria, this one can provide that essential shorthand to someone’s personality. Has your character changed their given name for some reason? Was the coolly glamorous Claudia actually christened Gertrude? Inspector Endeavour Morse is a prime example, concealing his Quaker mother’s choice of a first name from everyone. Is it because he knows his colleagues will mock him? Is it because of his intensely private nature which keeps everyone at arm’s length? Colin Dexter gives a master-class in using his hidden name to deepen the reader’s understanding of the man, and tantalising the reader.
This shows that what you name your characters can be so much more than just a convenient handle. A name has the power to reveal, conceal, pinpoint and surprise – a valuable tool for every author.
The Della Arthur Series set in the 1940’s in English.
Beyond the Pale
Red Haze on the Horizon
All three are available on Kindle and Dead White is also available in paperback (original publisher Gomer Press, now available from Y Lolfa).
Cyfres Dela Arthur yng Nghymraeg.
Gwyn eu Byd
Cyw Melyn y Fall
Gwawr Goch ar y Gorwel
Ar gael mewn clawr meddal (cyhoeddwyd gan Wasg Gomer, ond gellir eu prynu nawr oddi wrth Y Lolfa)
Nofelau cyfoes Maeseifion
Hen Blant Bach (Gomer, trwy law Y Lolfa)
Tra Bo Dwy (Gomer, trwy law Y Lolfa)
Yr Eneth Ga’dd ei Gwrthod (Gwasg y Bwthyn)
Gwen Parrott writes crime novels in both English and Welsh. Having spent her childhood in an isolated village in North Pembrokeshire, she is well acquainted with heavy snow, living out of tins and coping with an unreliable electricity supply.