Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Rose by any other Name

Sometimes, there’s a very good reason for calling a character by a particular name. It is a blessing. In all other respects, naming characters is almost as big a nightmare as naming novels.
When it comes to bestowing a title on a novel, it can happen at almost any point in the process, and, for me, that generally means later rather than sooner. I believe I talked about this in "What's in a Name?"
When it comes to characters, however, it’s kind of important to give them a name up front, otherwise you end up with someone that you’ve been calling something random for a long time, and now can’t get out of the habit of thinking of her in terms of her unfortunate moniker. 
This actually happened to an old acquaintance of mine when she had her son. When she found out she was having a boy, she started to call him ‘little man’, which became ‘Manny’, and when the time came to name him formally, she couldn’t bring herself to call him anything else. 
Names seem so easy, but they convey a very great deal, not only about the character, but about his upbringing, his class, his age, his parentage, and probably his race and creed as well. We don’t, for example, find a whole lot of Tarquins and Euphemias at the average inner city comprehensive, or Jensens or Neveahs in Brighton or Notting Hill. Names mean something, they resonate.
Without wishing to have a pop at genre fiction, after all, I love writing it, I often find that I put down novels, and particularly fantasy novels, very quickly because of the names the writer has chosen for his characters. Anything that includes an apostrophe is almost bound to make me close the book never to open it again. Anything longer than two or three syllables will not stay for long in my head, and anything that doesn’t tie me to an individual character will leave me wondering who is whom within a chapter or two. As to pronunciation, that probably requires a blog of its own (in short, however the reader chooses to pronounce the name is correct), but suffice it to say that if I don’t pronounce it instinctively from the outset, the name is never going to mean anything to me.
I have not joined the internet service Linkedin, for the simple reason that when I first saw the word, I misread it as LIN-KED-IN. I might have joined if it had been called Linked-in or even LinkedIn, who knows, but it’s a useful example.
Here’s what I do when I’m choosing a name. I decide where the character is from in time and space, and whether they  are following various social conventions. Then I relate one character to another so that families have names with similar roots. Here’s a nifty example: My short story ‘Cell’ for the Sabbat World’s Anthology is about a few brave souls on a planet resisting an occupying force, so... what did I do? I looked up a directory of Huguenot names. Then I picked and chose and modified spellings until I was happy that I had a family of names that had something in common, but which were sufficiently different from each other to be remembered each in its own right. They were also simple words that didn’t bounce around on the page drawing too much attention to themselves.
It’s not always easy to find the right names for characters, and there have been times when I’ve been wedded to names that I’ve had to change for various reasons, but names are always worth thinking about carefully. 
Some say ‘A rose by any other name... I say that if Rose is her name, nothing else will do.


  1. I agree it's important to get the name right at the beginning. Early on in one book I named one character Charley and one Carla...confusing enough, but I just couldn't think of either with any other name. So much information, as you say, is carried in a name. Sometimes it's fun to play with that and cast someone against their name, or let someone reinvent themselves and change the name as they go. Is there a really good dictionary of names for writers? I'd buy one...

    1. Lots of good lists of names on the web divided into any number of categories. I like genealogy sites, too, and regional phone books.

  2. while normally I agonise over naming (and as a RPG player/DM/GM I've had to come up with screeds over the years) ...

    ... you'll probably hate this:

    last time I decided I was going to have to generate a bunch of names, I literally decided to have them generated. I came up with a bunch of rules for the consonant/vowel combinations then had some lucky (sucker) person write a program for generating combinations based on the rules. then I trawled through the many results until I found some that looked like I could pronounce and that other people might proffer opinions on, varying from "cool" to "how the hell do you say that". strangely enough most of them have stuck, although it will undoubtably piss many people off, especially when all the names are the same length.

    for what it's worth, they aren't the names they're born with. I wanted to up the artificial factor, so I decided they're given new names at a certain point, and that they can be used to tell things about the person just from their name. plus I intentionally wanted people to come up with their own way of saying it (is it Krull like hull? or like bull?)

    some of them aren't so bad: Adinn, Tells, Burro, Krull, Colla, Danne, Fehll ... others are more of a mouthful: Prrul, Xennr, Hssen, Wkkar, Nzzir, Lejjh ...

    needless to say, this is quite a change from my usual methods of taking them where I can get them, whether it's from an non-English language, street names, river names, I named one guy after his dead girlfriend ... (Adinn's real name was created from two cities in Iran)

    unfortunately, I'm well aware this will probably last as long as it takes someone with oversight to say "yeh, that's not going to work." but for now, I strangely kinda like it ... (even though they're no Darn Cranklever or Mang Sootsneeze!) :D

    1. yeah! one of the advantages of being a literary nobody is that I'm allowed these naïve delusions ... for now ;)

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  4. One disastrous name anecdote - until about half way through writing my abortive pretentious literary novel (tm), one of the characters was named EV Rieu. This was a very high-faluting nod to the name of the man who edited & created the first collection of Penguin classics in the 1940s (yes, I'm EXCEPTIONALLY pretentious).

    The name worked well for the main character, who was a noveau riche young man obsessed with classical literature. All was well, until I read a chapter from my novel aloud to a reading group. Everyone fell about laughing.

    Why? My main character was called Edward Verrier Rieu - which sounded uncommonly like "diarrhea" when pronounced aloud. Disaster.

    So, I suppose what my anecdote says is always read a name aloud before you put it in!