They call it the silly season. In newspapers, it’s traditionally a time when small human-interest stories get a look in while politics and major crime take a rest.
Between Gaza, Ukraine and Iraq, it doesn’t seem to be working in the wider world this year, but for me it’s been another of those weeks when nothing worth posting about has happened.
Fortunately a book I’ve just finished set some thought-wheels spinning. About names.
In one of my several lives, I used to run writers’ workshops on the craft of fiction, and a question which often came up was, how do you choose names for your characters?
Where do names come from?
I didn’t have a definitive answer. For myself, I always found – find – that characters choose their own names. Or more specifically, they arrive in the story with names already in place. Clearly that isn’t the case for everyone who embarks on the perilous adventure of writing fiction, or the question would never be posed. So when it was, a lively discussion usually ensued.
Here are a few of the points which emerged, not necessarily all in one discussion, but over the years. If you don’t mind, we’ll leave aside the more fanciful inventions who seem to populate the mysterious world of the romance writer; let’s stick to the more mundane.
Names resonate with their time. There are fashions and trends which last a few years then fade away, which lets a writer suggest a character’s approximate age through a name which was in vogue at the time s/he was born. My schoolmates back in the dark ages were called Christine, Pamela, Elaine and Valerie, or Martin, Graham, Alan and Christopher. My daughter’s were Lisa, Emma, Rachel, Jason, Jonathan and Ben. Any guesstimates as to the decade in each case?
Sometimes little girls are named for the current pop princess or TV heroine, little boys for a football star. It became a running joke here in the UK that in about 1990 you could stand at the school gate at home time and call Kylie! or Ryan! and a dozen kids would look round.
But what goes around comes around, and sometimes names come around again. Back in the 1950s there were numerous old ladies called Sarah and Emily. Twenty years later they were favourite names for new babies. And Lily, Ruby and Maisie have recently made a reappearance.
All this is helpful if your character is pregnant; less so if she’s a high-powered 40-something lawyer. In that case she might be Claire or Lisa. Ain’t Google wonderful?
A friend once told me she’d given her children names which would stand the test of time. She called them Elizabeth, Richard and Stephen. Did her strategy work? From this distance – the kids are now in their 30s – I’m not sure it worked. Timelessness is a useful quality in a fictional name, but does it exist any more? I used to think Catherine, Laura and Anna were pretty timeless for girls, as were Andrew, Michael and James for boys, but now I’m less certain.
This all applies primarily to my own homeland. I’ve found that across the water people can be called all kinds of unlikely things; I’ve encountered Skip and Brick, Lane as male and female, and that’s just the less unlikely ones. But mostly I suppose more conventional names are in use. I have good friends called Jenni and Ted. And Josh, Jeff, Jessy, Erin, Marilyn, Ben. And now Terri.
All the above can be made use of if characters resolutely refuse to name themselves and expect the author to do the job for them. But then there’s crime fiction, which throws up a whole new set of criteria. What do you call a murderer? Is there such a thing as a victim’s name? And does a cop or sleuth need a name that will stay in the reader’s mind, in case the debut turns into a long-running series? In fact, does the genre affect the choice of names in any way (other than romance, which seems to make its own rules on this)? Feel free to offer answers, my friends!
OK, enough of this airy persiflage. Maybe next week something will happen.