What’s in a name?

I was a chapter and a half into a WIP when I realised something wasn’t working. After redrafting and editing and still getting nowhere with what I knew could be a great story it dawned on me the problem wasn’t with the story but with the heroine. I just wasn’t feeling her (unlike the hero who was more than happy to have a go much earlier than I was expecting him to, though that’s another story…) and I realised it came down to one reason: her name.

I had inadvertently chosen the name of a real person I had once known and instead of picturing my heroine I had a subconscious mental image of someone who most definitely didn’t deserve to get her hands on my hero.  As soon as I went back to the drawing board and renamed the character the scenes began to come together.

Names are funny things. However much I plan, I can’t get down to the business of writing the story unless I’ve found the right name. I estimate I’ve spent as much time choosing names for my characters as I did for my children*, though for them I had the whole of history to go at rather that medieval England. I try to use authentic names for my characters.  I can happily spend hours poring over documents from the time for inspiration so you’ll never find a Lady Chardonnay or Sir Kevin but I’ve also developed a few rules too.

Rule 1. Heroines can have two syllable names but heroes should be called something short, or a name that can be shortened (nicknames and dropping titles is a way I like to show the growing intimacy between the characters).

My first hero, Hugh in Falling for Her Captor was named after Hugh Jackman – which probably indicates where my mind was while I was writing. I like single syllables that to me at least sound a bit tough and masculine to say out loud: Hugh, Will, Hal. Rhett… Han… Jon… Thor (?!?)…

Four books in I’ve already broken this rule with the hero of The Saxon Outlaw’s Revenge with a hero called Aelric who goes by the alias Caddoc but finding a one-syllable Anglo-Saxon name proved almost impossible (and be thankful he isn’t called Aethilberct).

SOR front

I’ve slightly backed myself into a corner with my next book to be released because when I wrote The Blacksmith’s Wife I didn’t intend Roger to be anything more than the villain (perhaps having a name that became slang for penis is part of the reason he was so bitter).  Now he’s got his own book as readers were intrigued by him and is saddled with a less than heroic sounding name even though the Germanic origin means ‘renown + spear’ which fits his ambition to be a great jouster well. Isn’t that a lucky coincidence!

Rule 2. After hours spent with my spellcheck trying to change my second hero Will Rudhale’s tenses, I added a new which is never use a name that is also a verb (‘Do you mean ‘will try’ not ‘Will tried’? No I ****ing don’t, nor did I the last 27 times!)

Rule 3. Avoid the Dickensian ‘Mr Nastyb*stard, official puppy kicker of London Town’ method of indicating character through names.  Having said that I’m having to seriously resist following the suggestion of Baron Longden Hardthrust of Broadshaft Hall.

Rule 4. The biggie. Avoid the names of friends and family. Especially men. Mainly because I have a low embarrassment threshold and don’t ever want to have the ‘so that’s me in the book is it?’ conversation (which amazingly I’ve had even when the names don’t match). Chances are if I know you then you are in there somewhere because all writers are magpies and collect mannerisms, features and conversations but whether you’re the love interest, villain or comic relief I absolutely refuse to say!

*One named for a series of inventors, the other after a character in Buffy the Vampire Slayer if you’re interested.

Do you have a favourite character name, or one that turns you straight off the book? Do share in the comments.

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One thought on “What’s in a name?”

  1. My oldest son has a fairly uncommon name. One time I ran across it as the hero in a romance novel and just couldn’t bring myself to read it. I kept picturing him each time I read the hero’s name. I’m kinda disappointed I won’t be reading about Lady Chardonnay in any of your future stories. I bet she’d be a wild one. 😉

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