What's in a name?

  

What's in a name?

Emma Burstall is the author of the Tremarnock series of novels. The latest, Tremarnock Summer is out in paperback on 5th April.

Choosing a name for a book character can be almost as hard as naming a baby. When I was deciding what to call my children, I ummed and ahhed for ages because I wanted to get it just right, and so it is with the men and women in my novels. Often I’ll spend hours writing out different combinations of first names and surnames until I’m completely satisfied. 
 
A name can convey so many things, from someone’s personality and age to their nationality and background. Plus, if my character is someone I like, then I have to find a name I like, too, and if it’s my hero or heroine, I have to love it.
 
There’s another issue as well. I try not to name my characters after family or friends, in case they think I’m writing about them when I’m not. This is especially important when it comes to villains, for obvious reasons. It can be extremely difficult, though, because I know a lot of people, and at times I’ll plump for something generic, like ‘Helen’, ‘Claire’ or ‘Ben’, and hope no one gets the wrong idea. 
 
My sister once pointed out that I’d used the name of one of my nieces for a minor character, and although it’s a very common girl’s name, I then worried that the other niece was feeling left out. So you see, it’s hard not to ruffle feathers however hard you try!
 
Here are some tips for choosing names for your own books:
 
1.   Think about the kind of person your character is and their defining features, physical, intellectual and emotional. Names have associations, although of course this will vary for different people. For me, ‘Summer’ and ‘Tansy’ suggest carefree, New Age types while ‘Susan’ and ‘Victoria’ are practical and sensible. Graveyards can be a good source of inspiration. I once found a headstone in a Cornish cemetery bearing the name ‘Mary Screech’. I thought it was so marvellous that I made a note and used it for a character, Shelley Screech, who was suffering from a particularly nervous disposition!
 
 
2. Make sure your name fits the person’s age. Patricia, Barbara and Sheila, for instance, were very popular in the Thirties and Forties, but they’ve gone out of fashion.  And how many eighty year old Kylies or Tegans do you know? Exactly. If you need ideas, there’s plenty of information online about top boys’ and girls’ names in a particular year of birth.
 
3.  Try not to have too many names beginning with the same letter, as this can become confusing for the reader. Also, read all your names out loud once you’ve picked them. I once had to change someone’s name at the last minute, because I realised that it sounded too similar to someone else’s. This is especially important if your novel is to be made into an audio book.
 
4. Try alliterative initials if you want a character to be really memorable. This works particularly well with children’s books, think Bilbo Baggins and Rowena Ravenclaw, but use sparingly in adult fiction or you’ll risk irritating your readers.
 
5. Try to avoid unpronounceable names, unless it’s intentional. I once called a female character ‘Persephone’ precisely because it’s so unusual. The other characters kept mispronouncing the name in different ways and winding her up, which provided lots of comic scope.

Tremarnock Summer is out on 5th April in paperback. It is out now in hardback and ebook.