Wednesday, 29 January 2014

What's in a Name?

When you sit down to write full of inspiration and eager to get your thoughts on the page you can often be pulled up short by names. And then, just to get the words down before you forget that great phrase or plot twist you thought of while walking the dog, you pluck a name out of the air. Which is fine, as long as when you've got that brilliant bit written down, you think carefully about the names you've chosen. Many writers don't. Or if they do, they're just using names that are handy, usually names in the family or in a desperate attempt not to use names in the family, a random name. But in my brief experience as a writer (and reader) choosing names for characters is as vital as understanding their motivations, backstories etc. Too often I read stories that are ruined simply because the writer has chosen names that conjure up the wrong image in my head every time I read it. Or it creates a character in my imagination that turns out to be completely wrong when another bit of information is dropped into the narrative later on. 

I was involved in shortlisting a short story competition last summer and one of my fellow judges could be pretty ruthless. We did have almost 150 entries to sift through so you can imagine that each of us soon had our own strict criteria for making decisions. The names used in the stories became one criteria common to all three of us after my fellow judge said that she wasn't prepared to read past the first few paragraphs of one entry because the name they'd used hadn't been applied to anyone for sixty years and this story was about a young woman now.  She was right. Some names very distinctly tie a person to a period whilst others seem to continue through the ages. There's been a revival in 'old fashioned' names in recent years, Ruby, Elsie, Maisie, but others like Gladys remain linked to someone who would now be very elderly. If you introduce a character called Gladys, Irene or Eileen you're immediately suggesting to the reader that they are at least seventy. I read a book of short stories recently and the names chosen by the writer ruined my enjoyment of several. It's almost impossible to suspend your disbelief long enough to think that a young pregnant woman in a contemporary setting could be called Edith. In one story I read the lead character had a name that made you think this person was really past retirement, which was fine until two thirds of the way through you discover something that means she's actually in her mid forties. It then means, if you have the patience, that you have to reassess the whole story bringing in this new information.

Of course, it works the other way too. Attempts to bring a real up to date feel by calling someone by a current name can back fire too. Just as with the older names, the fashions in names change so quickly that what seemed contemporary will just appear crass in ten years time when a collection may still be around - if you're lucky. Kylie was very popular at one point, and would still be fine if the character was born in the Eighties, but isn't in their eighties. You can't cater for everyone's imaginations, that would be impossible. A name is always going to have associations in people's minds, the obvious one is Adolf! For me, Olivia was a name I had difficulty with for many years because it conjured up a really mean girl for junior school. It's a beautiful name but for a long time it was associated in my head with someone who was a bully.

I recently had to take my husband for an hospital appointment and I kept my notebook handy. Sitting in the waiting room listening to the people being called for their appointments was a great opportunity to note down some names, observing their owners and their approximate ages. Observations like these can help our stories be real with names that can give the reader a short cut to what we're trying to say, not send them down the wrong road.


  1. Dear Jayne,
    I was fascinated to come across this post. I intend to read your book as soon as I can get it in the US.
    Best wishes,
    Mary Timney

    1. Hi Mary, thank you for your message, though it's pretty spooky for me too! I've replied to your message through Amazon and hope I can help you get hold of a copy of the book. I'm also really interested to know if you're connected to Mary Reid or Timney.