What’s in a name?

Girl under tree

I am one of those people who spend a lot of time choosing a name for a character. I think a name aids in defining a character, and a good name is halfway to helping your readers to visualise them physically and possibly give them insights into the character’s personality.

I’m certainly not the only writer to feel this way. And it is no surprise that my own favourite writers are probably of the same mind. Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones are (or were) very clever at giving their characters the perfect name, like Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg or Sophie Hatter and Howl. Sometimes an author will even make the character’s name an integral part of the plot, like Michael Gerard Bauer’s ‘Don’t Call Me Ishmael’. So, I thought it might be interesting to dissect the process as I see it.

When I first start thinking about a story, who the characters are is always an important part of my plotting process. After all, I will want the action to move forward in a specific way, and so I require protagonists and antagonists who will act and react in a certain way, and the best way to achieve that goal is to tailor my characters to the plot. In this manner, this preliminary characterisation is of vital importance to my plot. If I need a weak character who is easily swayed, I am not going to place them in a profession that requires lots of decisions on a daily basis; conversely, a strong character will not be bullied by a spouse or boss – in fact I would probably have them running their own business. And this elementary character sketch influences their physical appearance, as I wouldn’t make a farmer weak and pale (unless he or she was ill as part of my plot).

As the example, let’s look at the protagonist of my current Work-in-Progress (WiP). I wanted a character living in the Victorian era who would be at odds with the intensely dominating patriarchal culture that existed in the scientific community. This automatically made her a female character.  To make her situation even worse, I made her very young, so that she didn’t even have the innate respect given to an adult. She had to come from a background where a scientific education would have been made available to her, so she had to be from a noble family (which annoyed me, as I am a Republican, but there you go).

It is at this point I will start thinking about a name.

The very first thing I did was go to the Behind the Name website, to see if they had a list of Victorian names. They don’t. However, a quick scan of the internet gave me lists of the most popular names for each year. I was drawn to the name ‘Alice’, since everyone knows Alice from Wonderland. Better yet, it isn’t that uncommon day in this era, which meant it wouldn’t grate on modern ears as too strange. A little more research provided the information that Alice was a popular name in the Victorian era due to Princess Alice, Queen Victoria’s daughter, who was a patron of women’s causes and it basically meant ‘noble’ – BINGO!  I had her first name.

As well, I liked the contrast of a practical, scientist Alice with the whimsy of the Wonderland Alice. And since most people knew of Lewis’s Alice, I could use references to Wonderland to give the character further resonance. (I didn’t end up exploiting that aspect as much as I first thought.)

Her surname came from my earliest idea of what her personality should be like.  Saint Bruno of Cologne is a saint celebrated for his eloquence, his intellectual pursuits and his love of teaching, all attributes which I wanted my Alice to share – so her surname became Saint de Cologne (many of the French aristocracy had fled to England or married into the English blue bloods – and this gave me to opportunity of giving her a French chaperone based on another famous female scholar). I made her minor nobility, so she became Lady Alice. As I wanted her to ‘sound’ posh, I also blessed her with Elizabeth for a middle name (and as a sly way of honouring my eldest daughter, whose middle name is Beth and to honour my other daughter, I gave her Scottish ancestors).

Then I made her a Professor , because she had to be an unarguable scientific genius – and a bit of research turned up the fact that an earned title takes precedence over an inherited title – so if a princess was to become a doctor she would be Doctor Princess Suzanne. I made her a professor even though no university in England would matriculate a woman let alone award her with a teaching position in the Victorian era. However, European universities were less bigoted and were inclined to offer academic honours to rich women they hoped would give funds their institutions. However, I wanted my readers to know that Alice had earned her academic credentials, so I stuck Scientiæ Baccalaureus (Starred First Ord.), Doctor of Divinity in Horticulture behind her name. These are not real degrees … but in my alternate timeline they exist.

So now I had my name for my main protagonist: Professor Lady Alice Elizabeth Saint de Cologne, Scientiæ Baccalaureus (Starred First Ord.), Doctor of Divinity in Horticulture (at sixteen), child prodigy, polymath, inventor, explorer and adventuress, and artist of the Botanical Sciences. In that name I hoped to encapsulate a fair proportion of her history and personality.

Now, none of this research was necessary. I could have plucked a name that sounded just as good, with a lot less effort. However, this careful construction of Alice’s name gave me the chance to get to know her while I was still in the early planning stages of her story. It helped me think about what her personality had to be like to be the person I needed for my plot. This process helps me form a very clear picture of her ‘voice’, and makes it easier to write her actions.

And her name also gave me a fairly good idea of what she had to look like. With Scottish ancestry, there was a good chance she would be a redhead. She would be taller than the average woman, for she would never have suffered from malnutrition. She wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, and so she was probably athletic in build with beautiful strong hands. Her French connection gave her a stylish beauty even when she neglected to dress fashionably.

See how it goes with me? If Alice had been a Millicent FitzWindsor, she would have been and looked very differently in my imagination.

Of course, I don’t expect any other writer to have the same process for naming their characters. It is rather complicated. But this works for me … and it might work for someone else. This is why I am sharing.


Filed under Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Genre, The Writing Life, Uncategorized

3 responses to “What’s in a name?

  1. It turns out that I used a similar method to come up with the name of my protagonist. He was a professor, so “Boffin” was a reasonable surname. Keeping with the theme, I found that St. Nicodemus is the patron saint of skeptics and seekers. Thus, Nicodemus Boffin. (and Nicodemus could be a perfectly good wizard name should the story line veer in that direction…)

    Then I discovered that Nicodemus Boffin is a character in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. So, it will come to pass in the prequel that I’m writing (spoiler alert!) Dickens’ Nicodemus is the father of my hero.

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