Angela Crider Neary is an attorney, an avid mystery reader, and a mystery writer. She has had short stories in anthologies and in EQMM, and in 2015 her first mystery novel, Li’l Tom and the Pussyfoot Detective Bureau: The Case of the Parrots Desaparecidos, was published. It was followed up this year with a second installment in the series: L’il Tom and the Pussyfoot Detective Bureau: The Case of the New Year Dragon. My guess is that this series attracted a lot of readers right off the bat with its clever and charmingly named detective agency. In this post, Angela reflects on the importance of names in fiction.—Janet Hutchings
“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare’s famous quote tells us that a name doesn’t matter—a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. And, of course, love transcends the differences between the names of the Montagues and Capulets.
This concept may not be so true, however, for story-writing purposes. After all, a name is a unique identifier that sets a character apart from the ordinary, displays his or her personality, or offers a glimpse into the character’s . . . well, character. A character name in a series of books can become iconic and act as the descriptor for the series. For example, Michael Connelly’s Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch is a familiar name to many mystery lovers, with books in the series referred to as “Harry Bosch novels.”
A crucial part of any story is the names of the characters. Naming a character or characters is likely one of the first things many writers do when formulating a story. It would be cumbersome, as well as devoid of personalization, to begin writing a tale with something like, “Character 1 made her way through the dark tunnel, pistol drawn. She saw a movement in the corner of her eye, pointed the gun in that direction, and fired. She shone a flashlight at the fallen body and was startled to discover she was looking into the face of Character 2.” The writer must relate to the characters in order to make them come alive on the page. Character names, however, are subject to change during the writing process where characters often take on a life of their own and may eventually suggest a more suitable name.
A name makes a character more human. Names can put the reader in the proper mindset, affect what the reader feels and thinks about the characters, and even set the tone of the story. Which brings to mind the question, how does a writer go about naming characters? Setting, geography, time period, religion, and culture, are just a few examples of factors that might play a part in what characters are named. A character’s name can also shape a character’s personality, actions, and even fate (think, a boy named Sue).
There are a myriad of ways that work to name characters in different circumstances, and the process is unique to the writer and the situation. A writer might pull a simple name out of thin air to name a character. But even then, the writer may have some angle in mind, be it conscious or subconscious. Further, a plain name might have more complex implications or indicate irony.
A writer might even use his or her friends’ names as characters, have a contest where a character is named after the winner, or offer to name a character after the name of the highest bidder at a charitable auction. My father, Bill Crider, named a character in his Sheriff Dan Rhodes series after a good friend. An interesting twist was that the character took on the characteristics of that particular friend.
I have heard of some who use online character-name generators—enter a brief description of the character and voilà!—instant character name. Some writers say that their characters tell them their names. Another good fallback is names of relatives—especially old-fashioned ones if a writer is naming older or eccentric characters. And, of course, naming a villain or murder victim after an ex-spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend can be quite satisfying, at least that’s what I’ve heard. Another option a writer might choose is to use a descriptive name for a character. Mr. Gradgrind from Dickens’ Hard Times comes to mind, whose name referenced his physically rigid appearance as well as his utilitarian nature.
Some writers draw their characters’ names from famous literature and art. The aforementioned Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch is named after a fifteenth-century Dutch painter whose depictions of hell, debauchery, and the temptations of evil often parallel what Harry has seen in his life as the orphan of a murdered prostitute and his work as a detective in Los Angeles. It is said that Raymond Chandler named his character Philip Marlowe after Marlowe House at Dulwich College where Chandler was educated and which was named after Christopher Marlowe, an Elizabethan writer. I followed this pattern, myself, in my whimsical Li’l Tom and the Pussyfoot Detective Bureau books, an example of which is a cat named Purrsby, whose name was inspired by Thursby in The Maltese Falcon.
There are also pitfalls to avoid in naming characters. It trips me up when I’m reading a book and there are a couple of characters with similar names, like Aubrey and Audrey, or Stan and Dan. Also, if a character’s name doesn’t fit the character’s personality, it can be distracting, unless there is some core reason for the disparity.
So how important is a character’s name? Maybe Shakespeare was right. If a character has enough personality and depth, their name may be irrelevant. How did he name his star-crossed lovers, and did it really matter what they were named? In retrospect, it did matter, because where would we be without Romeo and Juliet? And would Sam Spade by any other name be Sam Spade? Sometimes, only time can tell.