Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
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by Devyani Borade
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As writers, we know better than anyone the power of the right word. A carefully picked verb, an aptly placed adjective -- these are the things that make us tick. We could probably live forever off the high of a perfect rhyme and a thundering opening sentence. So when we find ourselves reaching the point of naming the characters in our story, it is a task we don't take lightly.
Memories are taxed for family, friends and acquaintances with uncommon names. Many a tense moment passes when we wonder if Jack wouldn't go best with Farnwell or if Violet mightn't be a better bet than Emily. We try out the permutations and combinations on our near and dear ones until they start pretending to be deaf to avoid another dreaded "does this sound OK to you...?" question. But somehow or the other, we still end up with our delicate and sensitive heroine named a stout Jackie Mason and our dastardly villain called a cheerful Charlie Merriweather and we despair if we will ever hit the nail on the head.
Having recently been plagued for the umpteenth time with this same trouble, I decide to put the problem to the best minds in the business and settle the matter once and for all.
"Hmm, nobody's ever asked me that before," admits author Rebecca Tope, surprised at my query. "In my first book I used some 'coded' names, which came from the names of cows we had when I was a child. One was Cleodie, but I have forgotten the others now. As a general rule I aim for unusual and memorable names -- Genevieve and Thea, for example. A girl in my class at school had a sister called Thea, and I always liked it. I try to avoid Susan, Jane, Jenny, Liz, etc. for main characters, but a few ordinary ones do slip in for minor characters."
She confesses, "I deeply regret using Den and Drew because they look so similar, and since I've begun to put them into the same book, it's even worse. I find men's names more difficult than women's. I find I use Celia and Cecilia a lot, and actually had to change a Celia to something else in one of the books! I do have favourites, sometimes not entirely consciously, and that's one of them. I occasionally trawl through the pages of forenames at the back of my dictionary, for inspiration."
Tope tries to avoid names of her immediate family. "But I have used the names David, my son's, Roger, my brother's and Bruce, also my brother's."
She continues, "As a reader I get cross with similar names in a novel -- and realise that it's the look of it, more than the sound of it, that matters, especially the initial letter. A good name (I am very proud of Genevieve) is an easy way to establish a character in the reader's mind, so they remember who she is throughout the book. This seems to me more difficult if it's Jane or Liz."
This sentiment is echoed by others. Popular historian fiction writer Bernard Cornwell says, "For the Saxon books, I comb the reference volumes looking for names. For The Fort, I used the real names of the people who were there -- that was easy! For other books? Well, I scratch around in indexes and even telephone directories. I avoid using the names of friends!"
Famous author David Baldacci does not have any set formula either. "It's usually what hits me as a commonly acceptable name for the character."
Veteran writer Jonathan Kellerman agrees with that strategy -- or lack of it. "There's really no simple answer. Rarely, I engage in a pun. For example, the manic-depressive man Richard Moody in my novel Blood Test. But more often, names just float into my head." He discloses a rather curious predicament that he now finds himself in. "After thirty-two novels, I've 'created' thousands of characters, so the challenge is not to duplicate!"
"I don't find it difficult to choose names for characters. They seem to arise quite naturally," says bestselling author Debby Holt. "I suspect many of them are influenced by people I've known. For example in my novel, Recipe for Scandal, there is a young woman called Hannah who is not unlike an old school friend of my daughter's. Her name, of course, is Hannah! On the other hand, another character in the same book is called Alberta in order to illustrate a quirk of her mother who named her after Albert Camus. So, there are no hard and fast rules."
Author Janet Evanovich also tends to simply make up the names. "I chose to set the Stephanie Plum books in Trenton, NJ because of the ethnic mix -- lots of Eastern Europeans, Italians, African Americans, etc. That's why there are a lot of names with those origins. On a very rare occasion, I'll go to the phone book if I'm stumped on a name for a character." Like her counterparts, she, too, avoids using names of real and famous people who happen to live in the area.
However, other authors opt for more methodical approaches. UK author David Nobbs, for example, best known for his Reggie Perrin series of books, occasionally uses, for surnames, names of places he's been to or of people he knows or of names he's seen on businesses and shops. "Once or twice I've used a few names from the worlds of football and cricket -- two sports that I love -- but in the main they just seem to come to me, and people seem to think that I have a good feel for them." He admits, though, that he sometimes has trouble before he can find himself at ease with a Christian name. "Christian names are more difficult. In books you have to be careful not to give the wrong impression of a person. The Christian name will be part of the information the reader uses to form his or her own picture of the character. Also, Christian names are heavily influenced by fashion and one has to get that right for the age of the person."
Nobbs reveals, "When we began the modern updated version of Reggie Perrin, we did face a slight problem in that Reginald is no longer a fashionable name. However, we felt that we couldn't change it as it is so well-known from the previous series."
He has company in fellow American author Jeffrey Archer. "I simply watch the credits at the end of films on television or at the cinema for first or second names. Or I might see a surname in a newspaper which I like, and will keep all such names on a list. Then, when the time comes to begin writing, I'll look back at that list and pick out the ones that best suit the characters that are going to appear in my book. I never pick a real person's full name."
Thus one learns from the secrets given away by some of the most popular names, pardon the pun, of the writing world. For more sparks of inspiration, try visiting one of the many websites that list baby names. Try also adding the suffixes "son" or "man" to most common nouns to create passable Anglo-American surnames. For example, "hen" and "son" gives Henson, "white" and "man" forms Whiteman. Appending "er" at the end of many action words, or verbs, also meets the mark many a time. For example, "stoke" gives Stoker, "strike" gives Striker, etc. Re-arranging the spellings of numbers can yield some quirky results, like Fortys Even. Even more simply, a trick I like to do is reverse spellings of things to make up a new name. Places or everyday objects can be easily used. For example, "Paris" reversed gives Sirap, who could be a wicked-sounding rascal. "New York" yields Kroy Wen, a possible exotic person from the Far East. A humble "Layer" can similarly unveil a majestic Reyal. There really is no end of possibilities -- it is limited only by your imagination! However, do be careful of the pitfalls of this method, though. If you're not watching, a Su Chang can end up in the same family as a Mbwango and an Ahmed!
Finally, if all else fails, pick up the first name of your favourite author and the last name of your most hated editor and combine the two. Anyone for George Quall?!
Devyani Borade is a published writer of short light-hearted articles on topics drawn from everyday life. She likes chocolate cookies, Calvin & Hobbes comics and trying her husband's patience. Visit her blog Verbolatry at http://www.devyaniborade.blogspot.com to enjoy the adventures of Debora, her alter ego.