What’s in a name?

“What’s in a name?” as Shakespeare so famously asked. ‘”That which we call a rose / by any name would smell as sweet”. Even as he wrote it, I suspect he did so with a wry smile, knowing there was a great deal in a name. No man who used the English language so profligately could ever be unaware of the significance of a word’s sound, smell, taste. And now science is backing him up in various ways; I read a study once which said ‘au’ sounds make a girl’s name sound strong (Laura) but a boy’s name sound weaker (Paul).

Naming characters is usually a challenge for authors – how do you find the perfect name to sum up all your character’s traits? Should you find a name before you start writing, or use anything as place marker and write a few chapters to see if your heroine names herself?

I chose my latest heroine’s name quite quickly – or rather, she chose it herself. From the moment her first piece of dialogue popped into my head, I knew it was followed by ‘said Charlotte’. So she was no problem at all. My hero started out as a Richard, but that wasn’t quite right. A few chapters in, he decided he was Laurence, which is fine, because I just need to do a quick ‘search and replace’ and Richard will be gone. But then, several hundred words later, it dawned on me: is he Laurence or Lawrence? French or English spelling?

Is he Laurie or Lawrie to the sister who just demanded to be included in the plot. Or Law? I don’t think he’d be Lau. And I’ve just read what I wrote in the first paragraph and realised Laurence has an ‘au’ sound in it. Rats! Should I try again? Wait until another name pops into my head? One of the Knights of the Round Table was a Laurence, as I recall. Oh, no, that was Lancelot. Lancelot? He could be Lance to his friends (bit of a subliminal message in there, too…) But, no, he’s not a Lancelot.

And so it goes on. I could spend hours trawling baby name websites, but that would be time when I wasn’t writing. So I’ll stick with Laurence just now and do another ‘search and replace’ if he becomes something else.

If you’ve waded through the above, I do have a tip for names of other characters – don’t use more than one with the same letter. I write out the letters A-Z and when I name a character I cross out that letter. As long as you don’t have more than about twenty characters, you can come up with convincing names for all of them without breaking this rule. And something else – people don’t need to be named if they only serve a brief function. ‘The shopkeeper’, ‘the little maid’, ‘my old employer’ – don’t weigh them down with names for the reader to remember. Let them say their piece and go.

 

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