Saturday, March 30, 2013

How To Name the Butler (and Everybody Else)

Naming characters is one of my favorite chores as a writer.
When I wrote stories as a kid, I was heavily influenced by my father, who was passionate about Charles Dickens.  I thought characters in books were supposed to have funny names.  This explains the title of my first novel (written when I was ten), Mrs. Wimpimple’s Trip around the World.  And I remember a short story I wrote around this time, featuring a butler named Smedley.

As I got older, I realized that funny names were best left to other writers.  I began to learn how to analyze fiction, and came to believe that characters’ names were supposed to mean something.  (I remember lots of conversations in high school about the significance of  "Hester Prynne" and "Arthur Dimmesdale.")  But the more I read, the more I realized that this wasn’t always true.  Sometimes characters were named Mary, and it wasn’t a heavy-handed reference to Christ’s mother.  It was just a name.

Writing as an adult, I realized that every action a writer takes (as a writer) is significant.  While characters' names may not be weighted with heavy symbolic meaning, they are chosen for a reason.  So, for example, in my novel The Hard Kind of Promise, Sarah is the girl who is interested in clothes and dancing and boys, and Marjorie is the girl who wants to direct science fiction movies and says things like, “I’m a little gassy” in front of the popular girls.

This is not to say that every "Marjorie" is socially awkward.  In fact, the two girls I’ve known named Marjorie were quite popular and socially adept.  But “Sarah” is a rather common name these days, and was therefore well suited to a girl who wanted to conform to social norms; “Marjorie” is old-fashioned and relatively unique, as was the “Marjorie” in my novel. 

Similarly, in Prettiest Doll, I needed a name for my protagonist that served several purposes and came up with “Olivia Jane.”  Olivia calls herself Liv, which I liked because it sounds strong, and Olivia is tough.  But Olivia’s mother (Janie) calls her Olivia Jane.  I wanted to make the point that Janie lives through her daughter and sees herself when she looks at her, and this was one of several ways I tried to accomplish this.

Right now, I’m working on my first fantasy novel.  I’ve assigned old-fashioned names to the characters that live in the small town where the story begins: April, Sebastian, Penelope.  I want the novel to have the feel of the classic fantasies I read as a kid, such as The Chronicles of Narnia and Five Children and It.  Of course, I decided to make up names for the characters that live on the enchanted island where much of the novel takes place: Philian, Zoolie.  This, as countless readers and writers of fantasy know, enhances one’s sense that the new world is unfamiliar and perhaps magical.
Making up names is a lot of fun. 

But someday, I want to write a book about a butler named Smedley.


  1. Maureen O'RiordanApril 1, 2013 at 8:37 PM

    I remember Jean Kerr's remark about the short stories she wrote as a child: "I can only remember one of them. It was called "The Pursuit of Happiness" and I wince to report that Happiness was the heroine's name."

  2. fantastic! thanks for posting, maureen!