How I Write – Naming Characters

18 02 2011

I was up ’til 6am this morning, driving myself wild with a new character.  This vampire doesn’t show up until book 3, Moonchild, and I didn’t know anything about him, until 4am this morning, when someone I’d thought was this character, turned out not to be.  A new character completely, was needed.

This drove me daft.  For the entire third book suddenly changed shape and emphasis.  In a good way, but in an overhaul and refit fashion.  My characters lead my writing.  Scenes where they are appear, and are doing or saying something, or an expression on their face as someone else does or says something…. these are my clues to the narrative.

Imagine a writer, sitting at a desk, scribbling.  Behind them a ghost of a character, stands, impatiently tapping their foot, and awaiting their birth on the page below.  That’s me and my characters.

Now imagine the poor writer scribbling away, with several full formed characters standing behind them, arguing amongst themselves as to WHO GOES FIRST.  With several minor ghosts whispering about on the edges, trying to get noticed.  Writer constantly being poked in the back, for them to pay attention to the character that made it to the head of the queue.  Writer trying to ignore them and write sequentially….

Welcome to my life!

So anyhows… last night a new character popped up.  Which means that today, I’ve been obsessed with name meaning searches.  I can’t hold this vampire in my head, until he has a name.  I can’t slot him into the narrative, until I know what his name is.  Names, and their meanings, are fundamental to my writing.  Sometimes a character is named for a person I’ve met, and trait that person has.  Joanne, my main character in Changeling, was named for a Joanne I knew, who was the most selfish, self obsessed, and destructive person alive.  No, Joanne in the book is not like that…. but… the selfishness of the Joanne in real life, was driven by her need to keep alive, no matter the huge burden of pain she was carrying.  You could look at her behaviour, and be repelled by it… but she was driven.  Driven by needs unmet, from early childhood, that slowly destroyed her. That she fought to overcome at all costs.  She was anorectic, and was driven by hunger and longing, and was ridden hard by her disease.  In fact, the selfishness was an aspect of her illness.  She was not a close friend, so I have no idea what her true personality was, I only saw the one distorted by hunger and pain, and the one fighting for attention whilst at the same time locked in a battle no one else could understand.  

So I named Joanne in my book, after her.  Because just to think of that other, real, Joanne, was to think of hunger and pain and longing for freedom.   And stick thin bones and skin, trying hard to keep going, no matter the pain.  My Joanne is more than that, of course, but it was the genesis of her name.

Such namings are rare for me, however.  There’s a Kurt, a vampire, in book 2, Lucifer’s Stepdaughter, that is simply named for Kurt Wagner, the Nightcrawler from the X-Men.  I’ve had a crush on Kurt Wagner, since the early Chris Claremont days, and one on Logan, the Wolverine.  Which morphed nicely into Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, all those years later!  But I put a Kurt Wagner in, as sort of tribute joke.  Which I then had to kill stone dead, but I kept Kurt.  You’ll like Kurt.  He’s nothing like Kurt Wagner, quite the opposite.  My Kurt is landed, aged, noble and knightly.  Not the circus freak outcast angsty Nightcrawler.  But they are both German, and one serves as a personal aide mémoire to the other.  Another deliberate one I slipped in, in Changeling this time, was a very incidental character who appears for a few lines, whom I called Mr Postlethwaite.  He had an easier version of that name originally, but he was named, and described for, the actor Pete Postlethwaite.  Who died as I was on the final edit of the book, so I immediately beefed his name up to the proper form.  More on that lower down.

But, as I said, very rare things.  You have to be true to the text, and your narrative is not your plaything, to litter with bits you enjoy, but which might intrude for the reader.  So most names comes from one of two things: names I enjoy to hear spoken out loud, or for their meaning.  Some names thrill me.  From the first hearing of them, or seeing them written, they fascinate me.

Dreyfuss is one such name.  I saw an ancient French film about Albert Dreyfus, the French army officer who was sent to the penal colonies, when I was a small child, trying to find something to watch on tv late at night, when everyone else was asleep.  I was fascinated by the tale, and the ripping off of his epaulettes, and the amazing cruelty of the colony prison.  The thrust of the story was lost to me, but the film making filled me with excitement and intrigue and awe.  So much so, that when I then saw Papillon many years later, I transposed Dreyfus into that film.  I’m still disconcerted when I remember there is no character named Dreyfus in the film. But I always see one, from the earlier black and white French (or perhaps German) production, in my mind’s eye.  The name simply thrilled me.  So when my main vampire character popped into my head one afternoon, in the scene where he first drinks from Joanne, he was Dreyfuss.  I didn’t name him, he came with it.

In fact, it was an awkward name, for reasons I will get to.

Another such name, name that thrills me to my core, is Maitland.  Joanne’s surname.  Oh how I have struggled with giving her that!  Maitland, I first saw carved on a massive burial stone in an old Churchyard below Edinburgh Castle, in the wooded sanctuary that is the far end of the parkways that are Princess Street Gardens.  The Church is up on the roadway level, and you descend to its crypt level, to have tea and scones (Or a meal, now, I see).  This leads out to the shaded kirkyard, with massive 6-8 foot slabs of carved headstones, creating their own interior walls under the canopy of the leaves.  It is a magical place, and far distant from the busy roads and people, just a few feet above you, on the other side of the leaves.  There, one hot afternoon, I spotted the name ‘Maitland’ and knew it was one of my special names.  Just how it sounds in my mouth, as I speak it out.  What it conjures in my imagination, from the past that is attached to such a name.

I’ve given it to Joanne, three times, and hauled it back off her.  I don’t want to waste it, or lose it.  But there are sound narrative reasons why she has it, and that’s something important to note, about names.

Names carry character history.  They are social clues to status, class, age and geography.  A name places someone in context.  Choose the wrong one, and you set up a dissonance, that must be explained, it cannot be ignored.  Imagine a 13th century character from Italy named Alf Roberts.  Would you believe that, as a reader?  Not without a huge amount of explanation, and even then… bit of a stretch to make that fit at all!

There is a wonderful line in an Alan Bennett monologue, where a man is being unloaded in the nursing home for the first time, and the beaming matron greets him with a “Hello, welcome, you are our first Kevin.”  Such a sure touch, and evokes so much… the Berts and Freds are long gone, and now the Kevins and Martins are arriving.  One day the Kevins and Martins will depart, and Ryan will arrive, to them move over for Reese.  Fashions change names, no matter the class.  One generation will have Tracy and Sharon, the next Kylie and Chantal.

I have stood in a playground and heard the cry…. “Shar… Shar…. CHARdonnay get over here!”

So the choosing of a name, for a character, has to fit.  It has to fit the place they were born, the class they occupied, and some aspect of the upbringing they had.  It can either be non-committal and ordinary in not standing out (such as Joanne) or it can be a little different, and stand out.  Something not too common in that area and time, but not too out of place to notice.

If you do choose a slightly out of place name, you have to signal it.  It doesn’t have to be much.  Ian Rankin mentions almost in passing that his Edinburgh born and bred detective, Rebus, has a Polish name as his grandfather was a Polish refugee to Scotland, during the Second World War.  It’s just in passing, unless there is a genuine point to be made about being racist to immigrants, when he uses it to grate down on the racists, for a moment.

Likewise, Michael Dibdin’s Roman detective Aurelio Zen, has to often mention that ‘Zen’ is a Venetian name, as his fellow Italians raise an eyebrow at this strange non-Italian sounding name.

Of course, what is served by these names, in these situations, and is shared by both Rebus and Zen in the narrative structure, is that they are outsiders on their own sub-culture.  Both men exist slightly off-centre with the world they work in, and the dissonance is reflected in their slightly off-centre names: they don’t quite fit.  Compare them with Miss Jane Marple, the absolute epitome of the ‘fitting in’ name: class, age, history, geography; seamlessly matched.  Miss Marple fits in so perfectly with her surroundings, that she blends invisibly into the background.  This is her detective strength – she gets to see and hear everything, as she is ignored as the gray haired old lady of a certain class and a certain position, in the background.  Her Vicarage Tea personna, allows her access to all the dirty linen.

Names, therefore, are both important, and a skill to get right.  For all I wanted to keep Maitland, for another time, another place, there is a sound and vital narrative reason why she has this name.  So she got it.  Dreyfuss, in contrast, is not quite perfect, for the actual character.  It is slightly out of dissonance, and I had to place it in context, a little more firmly, for it to fit into a self-chosen identity within a narrative.  No reader may ever notice it, either the slight dissonance, or the sleight of hand in disguising it.  But I know it is there, and had to take a slight tilt in the pathway, to make it blend.

Which takes us to Mr Postlethwaite.  The character, was clipped, dour, Northern, male, skinny.  Non-committal and took no nonsense.  An important element in his very short role in the narrative.  So naming him for Pete Postlethwaite supported the narrative.  UK readers would recognise the shorthand, and perhaps smile at the allusion.  The name added exotic British eccentricity to the non-UK reader.  So it worked, and made me happy at the same time.  Especially for a character named once, in about 4 lines.  I could have my little play, and not disrupt the reader.  So an indulgence I could allow myself.

Let’s take some time shall we, to revisit my comments that I had a huge crush on Nightcrawler, in the 80s…

… there, that feels good, doesn’t it?  🙂

Now, with the above said, I’d like to introduce one more element to giving vampires names…. how do you name a vampire?

For a start, vampires usually have several names.  So it’s important to delineate between their name, and their identity.  Dreyfuss is an identity.  The person who was born human, 2000 years prior, had a name.  That name has changed hundreds of times over the 2000 years.  Vampires who exist within the human society around them, have to have identities that protect them.  They have to have ways of transferring wealth and possessions between identities.  They have to work out how to appear to age, and to be a natural feature of the human landscape.

The birth name, cannot carry on.  Dreyfuss was a citizen of Rome and that would be a tad obvious in modern Britain.  Their identities must blend.  So it’s quite challenging for the writer.  Also, how do vampires who have known each other for hundreds of years, interact?  What is the convention on naming, when in discussion with someone you haven’t met for 300 years?  300 year old name, present name, birth name?  How, as a writer, do you match them all to their backgrounds, when their backgrounds change so dramatically?

My solution, is contained partly within the biography of the character, and then the vampire world rules I’ve created:  internal vampire hegemony.  All my vampires have biographies.  Birth dates, names and places.  Family set up, sibling position.  How they progressed into the world they were born into, and what their name progression was, if it serves narrative anywhere in the 3 book arc.  Within the vampire world view, there is also a vampire ‘nickname’ that serves to identify that personality regardless of their current name.  Dreyfuss is known as The Londoner.  He’s stayed in one place, more or less, for two millennia.  He doesn’t allow any other vampires in Britain – it’s his property.  When talking amongst themselves, all the vampires of any status, know who The Londoner is.  Some also have nicknames you would not use in front of the vampire in question.  The snide, angry or insulting ones.  Dreyfuss has a couple of those, but I won’t spoil the surprise.  The ‘official’ nickname, the one on the register in the Paris catacombs, is one each vampire has accepted.

Lucifer’s Stepdaughter, is one such vampire nickname.  And that’s the sane and to the face, version.  The one the vampire its owned by, likes and accepts.  That character has a couple of less charming ones, that you’d never say to her face…

Not all vampires have such a nickname.  Some are too young, some simply don’t have the status.  But they all have birth names, and identity names.  As a writer, I have to find them all, and make them blend.

Research is obviously a part in this.  If I have a vampire born in the Po valley in Italy in 1326 (as I do) I have to know where he was born, what his name was, and roughly how his family earned money.  This will all inform his early story and how his character develops.  I also have to know when they were made, whom by, and why.  How a human took the Dark Gift, is often the defining moment of their character development.  Sometimes not.  It’s all info I have to have, even if it is never written about, in order for them to be… pardon the pun… fully fleshed characters.

Research such as this is so much easier than it used to be.  What was once heavy and expensive reference books (and therefore, a lot of time in the library) can now be done online, in half the time.  A third, really, but you also spend more time playing, and time wasting when you use da internetz.  Google maps is divine here, as I can click the mouse to walk the streets of cities I’ve never been too, and pick out street names and write them into that day’s work.  History of major cities, including their physical look and development, is also far easier to do.  Although again, this can be time wasting.  I, for instance, know more about the geology of the Parisian basin than any normal person should, and far more than I needed to know for Lucifer’s Stepdaughter.  But sometimes you need to know more, in order to deliver the info the narrative demands, with a light touch.  But other times you just fall into a research black hole, and seriously time waste. You need to really ‘edit’ yourself, and discipline your own time.

The names however, and naming, are slightly more tricksy on the internet.  There is a lot of complete crapola on the internet.  And so many sites that engineer fake info to fool you into thinking they are giving you good info, whilst they try and sell you crap.  You need real discretion, and discipline, to use the internet for the naming of long living characters.  An Italian name popular now, may not have been heard of, in the 14th C. Most of your readers will not spot it, but some will.  Worse, the more informed, literate and intelligent the reader is (the reader you are actually chasing) the more they will be seriously annoyed by an amateur mistake.

And, you got it wrong.  For me, as a writer, that’s intolerable.

So you have to develop google fu skills.  You have to cross-reference and double check.  Want a 14C Venetian name, find a 14C document on people in Venice on-line.  (That was quite easy, actually.)

It’s quite easy to get lists of names on the internet for names from countries, it’s much harder to then split them into historical periods and usages.  You just work at it.  And find that others have been there in front of you.  I’ve waded though Albus, Severus and Bellatrix on sites recently.  Other writers do do their research.   🙂

Which brings me to how do you choose a name, once you have a viable list to select from.  And that’s me back to 4am this, morning, and my day’s work before I began this ramble.  For me, when faced with having to name a new character – vampire or otherwise, and being confronted with a wide selection, or even an unlimited selection as I have no biography yet to work with… the key is the meaning of the name.

My new character, from my 4am revelation, needed to have a name that meant light, or living, or spirit.  He needed to have some connection with the UK, but also to have been mainly raised in Italy.  He needed to have a modern version of the name, that did not stand out as odd, or twee.  He needed to have different versions of it, as his biography is as yet, unwritten.

I started on the Celtic name sites.  I then went through “names meaning light” searches, and sub divided into ‘living’, ‘moon’, and finally, ‘sun’.  I was musing with several versions of who this character might be.

I came to resonate with Lugh of the Long Hand, a mythical character I’d always been attracted too, as he is of the Sidhe.  I cross referenced to Italy, and found what is often found… that same sounding names across history and cultures, often have the same root.  So I have Lucius, Luca and Lugh.  All versions, identities, of the same core personna.  all of whom allude to light, and sun.  A warm power and a warm and striking personality.

You won’t meet Luca until Moonchild.  By then, I’ll have worked out a few more details.  🙂

I’d love to hear how you do it – please comment.  The naming of characters is powerful magic for me.  Anyone out there throw a dart in the phonebook?





One response

18 02 2011

For my story, I need characters from England and Scotland from the late 1700s-early 1800s. I looked online for church registers of births and deaths to create long lists of first names and last names, from which I am choosing character names. So far, I have one main character's name. Since the story is still in its infancy, there is a lot of work to be done, but I do like the name I've chosen for her.

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