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There’s always been Ethel.

by on March 27, 2013

Sorry, but I’ve been playing quite a bit of my vinyl recently and after quoting from that Genesis album the other day it’s been on my mind: principally I think because I can’t find the blasted thing. I might even end up having to buy another copy, which would be annoying.  Anyway.  The point of this week’s ramble is to talk about names, and how they rather affect us.

Ethel is not a very common name these days, is it?  What image does it conjure of the lady who would bear it these days? I think of a very victorian person, perhaps a maid (in the employment sense) or a cook, rather than a great lady.  My mother had three names from which to choose, and made another old fashioned choice.  I sometimes wonder if she would have been a different person if she had chosen Helen, one of her other forenames instead? Would she have become a femme fatale, with men launching ships in her honour rather than a disappointed and slightly embittered housewife?

And that moves me along with a depressing inevitability, to writing.  The choice of nomenclature for our characters is sometimes difficult.  Names carry an image, or a feeling about them.  Charles sounds slightly stuffy and formal, whilst Charlie carries a hint of hard work, maybe the scent of a pub? certainly laughter.  My apologies to any Charles or Charlies (especially right Charlies) who may feel offended!  When I’m writing a character I often try to carry a visual image of thet character in my head.  I did try, once, to have a card index with names and character habits and stuff for reference, but quickly gave that up: the differing mental rhythms from the names was enough for me to keep them all seperate.

Think of Lord of the Rings: would Sam have been as staunch and dependable if he had been called Merry or Pippin  instead?  Would Aragorn have been so Lordly if he had been named Bert?

Some detective stories like to have different characters with similar names to help them create a little confusion in the mind of the reader, and I’m sure that it is for the same underlying reason.  So what comes first? The character or the name? If you have a character in mind to fit a particular slot in your book, do you chose the nature of the character first and then select a suitable name, or decide on the name first and then see if the character fits?  Have you ever had to change a character’s name because their behaviour didn’t quite fit the first name you had selected?

When I wrote my first novel, I was a bit haphazard about names.  Now, especially as I’m stuck with a few of them, I’m very careful about the names I give my characters.  It’s a lot more important than I first realised.


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  1. That’s why I call my characters things like Snoofle, mostly.



  2. I’m not sure if that’s cowardice, or genius MTM!

  3. I just saw a D.A. interviewed on television whose name was Sunny Funk. I’ve also know a Barb Wyre, a Rosy Butz, a King Arthur, a Bill Stork, and a Vagina Brown. If people can have names like that in real life, why would anyone question a fictional character’s name?

    My main concern is to make certain the characters all have names that start with different letters, since that makes them easier to keep track of, especially for speed readers. Not long ago, I started reading a book where every woman in the first chapter (three of them) had weird fancy names beginning with the letter ‘S’. Before I’d even finished half the chapter, I was so lost that I closed the book and found something else to read.

    I do agree names are important to the overall atmosphere of the book. Another book I read recently–which had a very dark, apocalyptic tone–featured a heroine named Pepper whose full named sounded like some 1930’s comic book character. It was just one of many problems with this book, because all the names were so at odds with the book’s theme that I kept snickering and rolling my eyes. It’s really hard to take a story seriously when the names are just plain ridiculous.

  4. Names, yes, very important…ahem, especially if you name your dogs after your characters! 😛

  5. I am extremely impressed with your writing skills as well as with the layout on your weblog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Either way keep up the nice quality writing, it is rare to see a nice blog like this one nowadays..

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