FIVE RULES YOU PROBABLY SHOULDN’T BREAK 1) If your character is based on a flesh and blood person make sure the name is radically different to their real life one. That includes the good guys. Legal action was taken against Kathryn Stockett, author of “The Help”, by a maid who worked for Stockett’s brother. She claimed that one of the central characters was based on her life. The character was called Aibileen, the maid is called Ablene. I’m pretty sure the case was dismissed, but who needs the hassle? Better that Marianne becomes Bertha than she morphs into a Marilyn. 2) Names in a story should not start with the same letter. I know they do in real life, but you want the reader to be able to distinguish between the characters without giving it much thought. Imagine a short story about three girls going on holiday: Tess, Sally and Sarah. I would bet good money that the reader is going to mix up the two S’s at some point and that could very well be the point they put the story down.You can do a lot of things, take a lot of risks but don’t ever confuse the reader unless you want them to be confused. 3) Names not only reflect the fashion of the time, they also give important clues about culture and social status. So don’t cast Tiffany as a land army girl in World War II and I personally don’t think that Prince Darren works (unless you’re being ironic in which case these rules don’t apply). 4) Make the name memorable. Alliteration can be useful here: Micky Mouse, Peter Parker (Spiderman), Sam Spade (Dashiel Hammett’s detective in The Maltese Falacon), Radar O’ Reily in MASH. 5) Make them pronounceable. The reader may skip over them if he or she isn’t sure what they should sound like. Once that happens confusion is likely to creep in, something science fiction writers should consider if they are tempted to write about Vgwxz from the planet Lzghjjh.
AND NOT A RULE AT ALL JUST A THOUGHT…
As you are going to refer to a main character several times within a story, perhaps you should make the name work for its living. It could suggest a facet of the character’s personality or the role he or she plays within the story. Charles Dickens did this all the time, of course. There was happy Mr Fezziwig in Christmas Carol, sweet Rosa Bud the love interest in The Mystery of Edwin Drood and vicious Dolge Orlick, the apprentice blacksmith in Great Expectations.
Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball (Photo credit: jholbo)
Some contemporary writers also feel that using ordinary names is a wasted opportunity. Martin Amis has Lionel Abso in his latest novel and Keith Talent, the working class crook who says in’t it all the time, appears in London Fields alongside the much posher and dimmer Guy Clinch.
Can you think of any other books with ‘appropriate’ names for the characters? Do they work for you or get in the way?