What’s in a name? Guest Post by Jemima Pett…

Luke Skywalker

Elizabeth Bennet

Jack Reacher

Stephanie Plum

Indiana Jones

Bridget Jones

Zarko Fanwester

Each name probably leaps into your imagination. If you’ve seen them on film or tv, you may have a distinct image of them, too. How well do their names fit the personalities you treasure them for?

Luke Skywalker. Luke is a solid name; shades of biblical resonance, traditional. Skywalker; surely he isn’t a dirtfarmer or whatever they do in the desert where he lives. He belongs in the air, a pilot, at the very least. Is he a hero? Maybe not intentionally.

Elizabeth Bennet. Another traditional name. Bennet is among the more ‘common’ English surnames, in that there are many people with it, although the single t adds a slightly period feeling to it. Elizabeth always seems to have overtones of regality, especially when not contracted to Liz, Beth or Bess. Beth March is a much more comfortable name. Elizabeth Bennet suggests someone who knows what she wants – to me, at any rate.

Jack Reacher. Jack can be solid, reliable, or a ‘bit of a lad’, a non-conformist. Jack Sprat, Jack be nimble, Jack of all trades, Jack o’ lantern… You have to watch out for Jack. Reacher sounds like he might be slightly dangerous.

Stephanie Plum. Stephanie is somewhat sophisticated. Maybe she’s educated – maybe she’s just clever. Plum is an interesting surname. It could be derived from plumber, so a worker, solid and reliable. Or is she just colourful? Fruity? A fruitcake, even? If you don’t know her, check her out in the books by Janet Evanovitch.

   

Indiana and Bridget Jones. It’s always interesting when protagonists have extremely ordinary surnames. I’ve always wondered what that’s like, regularly meeting other people with your surname who are no relation. In my life I’ve only met one Pett I’m not related to, and heard of two more, and I used to work in recruitment – I have seen thousands of resumes. So parents (and authors) go that extra mile to help their Joneses stand out from the crowd (unless you’re Indi’s dad) – and continually work to prove their uniqueness.

Zarko Fanwester. What can you tell about him? He may well be in a scifi book (he is). Is he human or alien? Is he even a he? Friendly or aggressive? Fanwester doesn’t sound like it would give him a chip on his shoulder, like Plum might. He also doesn’t sound like someone you’d make fun of.

If you agree with those statements, then I’m doing my job as an author right.

Except I’m not.

Diversity

For a start, the above names except for Zarko are decidedly white Anglo-Saxon names. Not even a middle European or a Celt in there. Skywalker’s non-traditional, but still Anglo-Saxon. There are plenty of people with different colour skin who have Anglo-Saxon names, but if you are story-telling, you need to consider whether your characters should represent a different mix of community or not. Jane Austen did not have that trouble, on the whole.

If your own community doesn’t provide you with sufficient diversity, then look elsewhere, newspapers, sports stars (you get some wonderful new ideas from watching Olympics or World Championships). Try not to pick famous names, though.

Give careful thought to whether you can introduce greater diversity into your stories. You never know whether it would be the key to diversifying your readership! And while you’re about it (one of my failings that I’m working on), try not to stereotype jobs into male and female.

Inventing names

I don’t know whether there are principles for inventing names, especially those in Fantasy and Scifi. Here are some ideas, though.

Some places/planets may have a dominant (regional) name. Maybe they all sound Polish, or South African, or Peruvian, whatever their racial mix.

Prefixes and suffixes may be common. Maybe everyone from Zarko’s planet is a xxx-wester. Maybe there is a substitute for Mac that suggests a family relationship. Use the patronymic first occasionally (Kira Nerys in Deep Space 9).

Maybe you deliberately want to mix up different origins, like I did with Rajah al Mistry, who has both Indian and Arab elements.

Some readers hate apostrophes in names – like T’Garth – because they don’t ‘know’ how to pronounce them. I know it’s fashionable, and I’ve used them myself, but I’m often not sure of the purpose. I feel the relevance should be clear to the reader.

Google your names. It could be important not to pick a combination of letters that means ‘kill the emperor’ in some language.

Does the character fit the name?

This is the other side of the question at the start. You have a name, the reader gets a feel for the character. As an author, once you chose the name, are you continuing to write the character to fit it?

How often was Skywalker teased as a kid because he was a dirt grubber? Does he have a chip on his shoulder, or did he just believe he was destined for more than this. How would that help you write his actions, thoughts, responses…?

When I was a kid, there were a huge number of occasions where, on giving my name, to an adult, the response was “And you are a pet, aren’t you?” sometimes accompanied by a shucking of the cheek, and always with an inane grin since they thought they were the first person who had ever said it. You can probably tell I have a polite smile on my face as I write this. A certain stoicism results, and Pett is at least innocuous. What it does do is to make you immune to other people’s ‘meaningful’ or ’embarrassing’ names. As I said earlier, I’ve read thousands of resumes. The worst surname I’ve come across was Glasscock. It had the other recruiters howling with laughter. I just thought, poor person.

If you give your character a funny name, you have to write them like they have grown up with people sniggering at them. Or asking them to repeat it. Or spelling it each time they give their name. At least Pett is short (which is why people don’t hear it first time).

So give some thought to the characters’ names, whether you are reading or writing. There may be more in it than meets the eye. That made me think of films where famous actors turn up. Whenever Sean Bean turns up wearing spectacles, he’s a villain. Has the author given them villainous names – or have they put them in disguise?

How do you choose your characters’ names? What do you think of the names given to your favourite characters? Let’s have a discussion in the comments!

All bookcovers from Goodreads except The Perihelix (2nd edition), from me.

Jemima Pett

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18 thoughts on “What’s in a name? Guest Post by Jemima Pett…

    • Names from the map is a great idea – but a community would have a mix: places, trades, colours, personalities, son of… I general find something for a short story character if I don’t try too hard. Maybe it’s practice!

      Liked by 2 people

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