This week, I’ve been obsessing over characters’ names and why it’s so important to get them right. Just like plot, setting, research and characters, each requires a depth of understanding from the author which never makes it to the page.

What makes a name work? Here are ten things I’ve learned.

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Actors often quote a snippet of advice. Memorable names follow a syllable pattern. Three in the first name, one in the second. Jeremy Irons. Emily Blunt. Harrison Ford. Virginia Woolf. Cormoran Strike. Rosamund Pike. Atticus Finch. Orlando Bloom. Vivien Leigh. Beatrice Stubbs.

Names carry all kinds of coded messages and subconscious associations which can make a name become an essential part of the character. They must feel right, for the writer and the reader. Colours, animals, professions all trigger feelings of trust, affection or suspicion we may not even realise. Sirius Black. Scarlett O’Hara. Cat Baloo. Mike Butcher. Dickens was a master of character encapsulation within a name.

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Class, age and type can be encapsulated in the right nomenclature. Florence Flannel, aged retainer in a Cornish murder mystery, conjures the gnarly-knuckled old maid with no need to resort to comic West Country accents. Whereas Elizabeth Abernethy, lady of the house, carries a whiff of crinoline, corsetry and conspiracy.

Similarly, choose names to fit era and genre. Fantasy identities require as much creativity as historical fiction requires research. Slatibartfast meets Hrothgar. Chick lit heroes tend to be one-syllabled: Dan, Tom, Sam, Rhett, Mark and Will whereas heroines generally need two: Bridget, Sophie, Katy, Lucy, Vianne or Sally will do nicely.

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Two characters or more who begin with the same initial make the reader’s life harder. Marianne asked Madeleine why Mary Jane was at Michelle’s funeral because Michael had promised Martin he’d keep her away. *flicks back to dramatis personae*

Technicalities matter. When you have a character whose name ends in S, what happens with the possessive? James’s gun, Nicholas’ trousers, the urinal of Degas. If a first name ends in a vowel and the surname with a consonant, how does it sound? Mara Bellena, Mar Abelena, Marabelle Ena?

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Sounds matter. Read the names aloud. If the name is tricky, but you need it to be so, offer the reader an insight as to how it sounds. When my detective encounters an Angolan DNA expert called Conceição, she notes the pronunciation with a mental bridge – ‘cats say miaow’.

Characters rarely need to remind themselves of their own relationships. Hence using terms such as ‘sis’, ‘boss’, ‘cuz’ are an irritating authorial effort to remind the reader what s/he already knows.

Cultural resonance must be accommodated. I got on marvellously with my local doctor until we crossed the first name bridge. ‘You can call me Adolf’.

Collect names. Curious name crop up everywhere: signposts, streets, shops, election posters, newspaper stories and even in junk mail. Watch and write down those that trigger your own imagination. You may not use them for years, but when you do, they’ll have the same effect on the reader.

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This is not me

This is not me

I’m a member of indie writers’ collective Triskele Books. We first encountered one another on a peer review site. What were we doing there? Trying to improve our writing.

We’ve each taken varying steps to become better writers; creative writing courses, writing workshops, working with mentors, studying How To books, and learning how to take and use criticism. Not to mention reading. Always reading.

On the eve of our second anniversary (two years, ten books and another three on the way), we’ve learned a whole lot of new skills and knowledge in the fields of publishing, marketing and teamwork.

But we haven’t forgotten what drew us together in the first place.

Good writing.

On the journey, we’ve learned a lot about how to write. So just before our second birthday, I took a step back.

  • What are the most important lessons I’ve learned about writing?
  • And which examples from contemporary literature best illustrate the point?

Start Strong

Who wants what … and why? What’s in the way? Regardless of genre, you have to hook your readers, pull them into the story and provide a driving force. The clarity of objective need not be baldly stated, but the reader must want to know, need to know what happens next.

Start in the right place. Do you need that prologue or framing device? Or can you get right to the point? Excite, entice and keep the momentum going.

Examples

Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs

Harris sets out the stakes in the first chapter and whets your appetite about Hannibal the Cannibal. You can hardly wait for Clarice’s first encounter with Lecter.

Ian McEwan, Enduring Love

The opening section, a picnic interrupted by a ballooning accident, shocks and pitches you right into the heart of the novel in just 16 pages. The unravelling of the fallout is mesmerising.


Know Your Storyworld

Storytelling is a deal struck, a bargain made, a contract sealed between the writer and reader. Tellers of tales are expected to fulfil their obligations. Honour your promises or suffer the consequences.

Your storyworld must contain enough detail to immerse and convince the reader to suspend their disbelief. An internal logic applies, and it is the writer’s responsibility to uphold that. This means knowing so much more about your fictional environment than will ever make it onto the page.

Examples

Martin Amis, Time’s Arrow

The reverse narrative literally runs backwards chronologically, leading our narrator through WWII as a doctor in Auschwitz. The points this book raises would be impossible without such careful continuity. An effect so complete that it takes you moments to reacclimatise to real time after you put the book down.

Sarah Waters, Fingersmith

Any one of Waters’s books exemplifies her diligent attention to detail, but this cunning tale told from a dual perspective maintains the world of story while changing the reader’s interpretation of it.

Know Your Characters

All your characters need to be fully fleshed out and given a voice. Again, you should know much more about them than the reader will ever learn. One feature we spotted when reading each other’s work is that characters based on real people are often the least convincing. Create and inhabit your story people, and maintain Point of View. (Head-hopping is a distraction. Read writer and editor John Hudspith on the subject.)

Examples

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Despite the fractured narrative that whirls us across time and space, each section of the book has a tightly controlled character perspective, anchoring the reader to events in the now.

Polly Courtney, Feral Youth

Few books carry such weighty themes with such a unique voice and distinctive accent. Ben Myers’s Pig Iron or Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, for the use of dialect/patois/literally rendered speech come close.

Respect your reader

At the most basic level; show, don’t tell. Allow the reader’s intelligence to fill the gaps and make connections. Don’t repeat yourself in case they didn’t get it first time or use clichés they will have seen before. “It may be the first book you’ve written, but it’s unlikely to be the first book your reader has read.” – Jane Smiley

Examples

John Boyne, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

This story could equally well be an example of humility, but Boyne allows the reader to come to their own conclusions and judgements, through understated references to the place and time.

Toni Morrison, Beloved

A dextrously woven piece which contains shockingly detailed moments and allusions to much more we know nothing of, Morrison uses the past and present to create meaning through the reader’s interpretation.

Perfect Your Prose

 Another essential stepping-stone to clarity of communication – cut the crap. Not just the obvious such as ridding your work of all those adverbs, excess adjectives and padding words, but also ‘domestic writing’. Use strong verbs and concrete nouns, and never indulge the ‘because’ factor. Pay attention to subtext. Make every word earn its place and end your paragraphs and chapters with a punch.

Examples

Cormac McCarthy, The Road.

The master of pared-back prose, McCarthy uses language like a Stanley knife to whittle his story to perfection. Bleak, unadorned and all the more powerful for it.

JM Coetzee, Disgrace.

Unusual in its use of the present tense, this book is chillingly accurate in its use of spare sentences, cool description and the way it conveys overwhelming sadness, frustration and hopelessness in so few words.

 

Arc and Consistency

Another part of that author-reader contract, your world must be consistent, your characters should behave characteristically and your voice and tone need to reassure your reader that they are in safe hands. This is not to say characters should not change – they should grow and develop with the story. But readers know if timid little Tabitha goes into the haunted house only to serve the plot, and the kick-ass sexy cage-fighter with killer lines is an airbrushed version of the author.

Examples

Alice Munro, Lives of Girls and Women.

The growth of Del and her family, the changes they experience and those they attempt to effect, the world of country and city all combine to create a consistent, plausible world as familiar by the end as your own.

Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn.

A perfect study in change and adaptation, as Eilis Lacey arrives in 1950s New York from Ireland. Her subtle flowering is understated but profound, and always true to her personality. A brilliant creation.

Keep on Improving

 Get it right. Seek feedback, join critique groups, and learn how to improve as a writer. Grammar, spelling, usage, punctuation can be learnt; style is far harder. Should you happen to stumble upon astute critters, treasure them, listen to what they say and even if you don’t agree, entertain those ideas. Would the story work better if you changed the MC’s gender? Does the plot need reversing?

And if you look at it from all angles and still believe you were right, go for it. Trust yourself. It’s your story, after all.