Saturday, July 15, 2006

The importance of names

One of the many things I really enjoy doing yet occasionally find extremely difficult is finding the right names for my characters. It sounds silly, but if you give a character the wrong name they simply won't come to life. I belong to a group of published writers who meet every month to discuss work in progress, ask advice on scenes that aren't working, or brainstorm ideas for a new book to see where the weaknesses are and how many potential plot threads might be developed. We've all had sessions where we've moaned about being unable to "see" or get a grip on a character. The first suggestion always is to try a different name. It's amazing how often this is enough to remove the block. Suddenly your character springs to life, as real as your family.

But not only must names be right for your characters' personalities - we are all influenced to some extent by the names we are given because not only do they give clues to our background, our age, and the influences on our parents - they also need to be correct for the period. You might really like the name Wendy. But JM Barrie didn't invent it until after 1902 when he first introduced Peter Pan. So using it in a story set during the Victorian or Regency periods wouldn't be a good idea.

On the other hand, there are some names that should never have seen the light of day. I've been doing some research for my current work-in-progress, set in Cornwall in 1799. I wanted to know whether fire insurance existed then. Apparently the first fire insurance company in Britain operated from an office in London's Threadneedle Street in 1680. The man who set up the company was baptised If-Jesus-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned Barebones. (He was the son of a noted parliamentarian Praise-God Barebones.) But for business purposes he called himself Nicholas Barbon. I'd say that was a very wise decision.

Jane Jackson.

Dangerous Waters pub. Robert Hale Mar. 2006
(To read an excerpt please click on: )


Anonymous said...

I wonder if those extremely god-fearing names were a reaction to having an ancestor called Shiver-Me-Timbers Barebones or Skull-And Barebones

Kate Allan said...

lol Laura

I agree that names are really important. More than just a name, they help define the character.