A barista in my local Starbucks says when he asks for customers’ names they often create alter-egos like “Superwoman”. The whores in Whorticulture understand the power in choosing your own name. It’s one of the easiest ways to reinvent yourself.
For the writer, choosing names for your characters is a fun but important part of the creative process. If you get the name right, if you find the perfect name for your character, the kind of name that makes it impossible to think of that character as anyone else, then it becomes impossible to separate it from the novel. Which is why it’s easier to remember the surnames of some iconic characters – Holly Golightly, Jay Gatsby, Holden Caulfield, Scarlett O’Hara, Emma Bovary, Mr. Darcy – than of people you know!
Parents take care in naming their children because they know a name has its literal meaning, a host of connotations that can change over time, and all kinds of derivatives that other nastier kids will figure out. The popularity of a name at a given time can tell us about a nation, a mood. (How many Catherines, Kates, or Elizabeths will there be in the UK after the royal family celebrations of wedding and Diamond Jubilee?) It can set the tone. But the author has other factors to take into consideration. So how do you go about it?
1. Recognise that the perfect name is a fiction. Many authors experiment with names in draft version. So even Scarlett was originally “Pansy” right up to the point just before Gone With The Wind went into print; Mickey Mouse was Mortimer Mouse; Shakespeare’s Falstaff was Oldcastle. Trust in the process to let the character’s name reveal itself to you if it isn’t there at the start.
2. Decide whether your names should be self-conscious. Artists like Hogarth invented names to comic effect to give clues about characters’ behaviour – Silvertongue the sleazy, seductive lawyer; Squanderfield the gout-ridden Earl who loves to spend. Dickens emulates this practice in his novels with names becoming a shortcut to defining personality. This can feel a bit lazy – like telling us a character wears a Rolex, drives a Porsche, and drinks Bollinger – rather than showing us traits through the things they say or think.
3. Think about whether a subtler approach is suitable. Look at the meanings of names and decide whether you want to use these ironically (baby naming sites are useful here so sign up even if it feels odd being bombarded with other irrelevant motherhood related info.).
4. Make it accurate. When you’re writing historical fiction, it’s important character names are true to their era. The internet has made it easy to research passenger lists, census returns, etc. and this is how I found all my characters’ surnames in Whorticulture. First names must also be accurate. Remember you have to have an idea of your characters’ parents too. What name would they have chosen for your character and why? (e.g. How does your character’s name compare with their siblings’…?)
5. Remember who’s telling the story. Context is important, particularly if you have a narrator. So we never learn the name of Abigail’s cousin in Whorticulture, she just thinks of him as Cousin; in Katharine’s story, she dislikes Mr. Royce so refers to him as Royce; in Seraphine’s story, she doesn’t disclose her real name.
6. Make it easy for the reader. Odile and Odette would be more confusing on the page than Black Swan, White Swan on stage. In Whorticulture, characters reappear in other stories as ‘bit parts’ so it was important that their names were reasonably distinctive so the reader would recognise them.
7. Trust your instincts. Some names just feel right. (Sorry if that’s not very helpful.) I like to speak my names out loud when I’m deciding. In Whorticulture, when Abigail considers whether Jerome is husband material, it’s his name she begins with: Abigail Seften. The words linger like snakes’ hiss. Cyrus Hinckley doesn’t sound that heroic; Jerome felt like a charmer’s name.
8. Keep an open mind. Allow for serendipity. I didn’t have a name for the little girl whose letter opens and closes Whorticulture but a chance conversation with a stranger in the French House in Soho (London) led to the name Sarah Sea Storm. I can’t quite remember whether this was really the name of my fellow drinker’s daughter or just a name he liked but it is a beautiful name and I loved the rhythm of it. And sometimes these chance encounters throw up the best names.