All the Tour De France hoo-ha has thrown up the splendid name of Bradley Wiggins. Now a name like that conjures up the cheekiest boy in 4b to me, a dab hand with conkers and adept at pulling faces when the teacher’s not looking. He’d have sticky-out ears, a tuft of unruly hair he sticks down with spit and a good line in the dog-wrote-my-homework excuses.
What about Tempest Pollard? This wonderful name was found whilst researching a family tree. For me, she is a bold red-headed girl, a fisher lass as strong as many of the lads and quite capable of cutting anyone down to size. She’d help haul the lifeboat through winter snow and pose for Frank Meadow Sutcliffe with her local bonnet on.
But to someone else, Tempest Pollard is a solid ox of a man, a farmer with hands broad as spades and a slow burr of a voice. He’s not given to much speech, but what he says he holds to.
So how do I choose names for my characters? I could go the Dickens route and make them up – you know what you’re getting with Mr Gradgrind and Lady Honoria Dedlock. Yet although my writing has fantasy elements in it, I strive for a certain degree of authenticity.
By that I mean the names should reflect the place and time that I’ve chosen – even if they are alternatives to reality. For example, I have lots of fun researching names and occupations in early 19th Century Sussex to populate Regency Selchester. One of my best sources are old directories which you can search by decade and area here. It’s a fascinating resource/timesink.
Another entertaining, if slightly creepy, approach is to visit graveyards: I guarantee you will find at least one fascinating name. To avoid offending family sensibilities, I do tend to mix and match forenames and surnames. I also cross-check on the internet to see if my character’s name throws up anything inappropriate or offensive. So far, I’ve been fine.
Anyone who has done any ancestor hunting will know how frequently certain names turn up: Elizabeths, Marys and Margarets; Georges, Williams and Thomases run right through many a family tree. This is where accuracy needs sacrificing to art.
- You don’t want easily confused names
- You want your main characters to be memorable
I have been known to keep an alphabetical list to make sure no initial letter gets repeated – though it gets interesting with C and K, Th and F. I have learnt I have a real penchant for surnames starting with H.
So after all this, I sound terribly organised or weird depending on your point of view. But I will end on a confession: some of my favourites come out of nowhere. Both Mattie Henshaw and Clemency Atwell sprung out of my mind like Pallas Athene from the head of Zeus.
How do you choose? Do you see someone from the sound of their name?