Naming Minor Characters: Fun and Games with Names

One of the fun things about writing fiction is that you, the author, can really play with names for your characters. Hero or villain or somewhere in between? You’re in charge when it comes to naming.

And if you’re writing historical fiction, you have even more scope.

Charles Dickens, master namesmith

Charles Dickens, master of naming characters

Dickens was the master of naming characters, I reckon. Who can forget Mr Pecksniff, or Mr Bumble, or Abel Magwitch?

Magwitch and Pip, named by Dickens

Abel Magwitch and Pip

Dotheboys Hall, run by Wackford Squeers, named by Dickens

Dotheboys Hall

What about Wackford Squeers of Dotheboys Hall?

Dickens perfected the creation of names that elided parts of words to convey ideas.

Mr Murdstone, for example, the villain in David Copperfield, is a combination of murder and stone-hearted. At least, that’s how I read the name. Do you agree?

Some of the Dickens coinages have lost their power to surprise or shock, simply because they have become part of everyday language. Scrooge is one of those; and Fagin; possibly also Uriah Heep and Micawber.

Fagin, by Kyd, coined by DickensMr Bumble by Kyd, named by DickensDickens mural in Devonshire Terrace London

Fagin and Mr Bumble, by Kyd — and the Dickens mural in Devonshire Terrace, London

Jane Austen: a bit less adventurous on the naming front?

Mr Knightley proposes to Emma - a suitable name for a hero

Mr Knightley proposes

Heroes can have fun names, of course, but there’s less scope for writerly devilment than with other characters.

Emma‘s Mr Knightley is precisely what his name implies. No need to go searching for hidden subtext there.

Captain Wentworth of Persuasion is less clear. Is it that his Worth Went? Or is it that he Went WITH Worth? Sir Walter Elliot, Elizabeth and Lady Russell didn’t rate him, so perhaps that was when his Worth Went downhill. He’s more of a Captain Backworthy when he returns, of course, trailing clouds of glory and prize money. From being a worthless match for Anne Elliot, he’s become a desirable and worthy catch for any unmarried lady.

Playing with names : servants and minor characters

Unknown shadowy character ready for naming

In my commercially published books, I managed to slip in a few fun names, usually for minor male characters. I had the Earl of Gradely in one — my editor, not being from Yorkshire, didn’t spot that allusion and, in any case, it was ironic since there was nothing in the least fine, or gradely, about the groper who bore the Gradely name.

I introduced old Viscount Hoarwithy in another story. Hoarwithy is actually a real place, but it sounds like something much naughtier if you split it into three syllables. (Try it: hoar—with—ee)

My Aikenhead Honours series included a very distinguished butler called Withering, though I didn’t manage to include the line I really wanted: “Withering glanced witheringly at his underling.” My editor might have spotted that one and forced me to rename him. As it was, Withering got through into the first book and then paraded through the whole series in suitably stately (and withering) fashion. And I grinned every time I brought him on stage.

Tourists admire the militia at Cromer, Norfolk

Tourists admire the militia at Cromer, Norfolk
print reproduced by courtesy of Louise Allen

There are lots of wonderful verbs in the English language that can be used in this way.

Award-winning historical author Louise Allen wrote a blog serial last summer which featured the Earl of Wittering and his family going to the seaside. And the Earl’s heir was named Viscount Ditherstone. Lovely stuff, Louise! Really made us smile.

J K Rowling, in the Harry Potter books, had wonderful inventions, too. Dumbledore makes me think of dumb+bumble+adore all jumbled up. Snape gives me snap+snake+sneak. And then there’s the utterly brilliant naming of a politician — the head of the Ministry of Magic, Minister Fudge! Fabulous stuff.

Your turn at naming names? Anyone can play the naming game

Fancy a go? Here are some words to play with. See what your personal dates can deliver.
[Find your birth DAY/DATE in column 1 or 3, your birth MONTH in column 5, and the final figure of your birth YEAR in column 7. Then read off your words from the columns alongside.]

If your birth date (day)  is: Your verb is: If your birth date (day)  is: Your verb is: If your birth month is: Then add this ending to your verb: If your birth year ends in: Your character’s occupation is:
1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

 

totter

haver

perish

mock

titter

dither

quiver

grumble

chuckle

wander

grope

wither

sneak

falter

wander

 

16

17

18

19

20

21

22

23

24

25

26

27

28

29

30

31

giggle

filch

darken

twinkle

kiss

twist

finagle

love

cackle

flower

fetch

crinkle

stitch

linger

crackle

jerk

Jan

Feb

Mar

Apr

May

Jun

Jul

Aug

Sep

Oct

Nov

Dec

-ing

-wick

-ling

-smith

-sham or -am or -em

-worthy

-body

-bottom

-head

-master

-good

-alls or -halls or -balls

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

0

the butler

the baron

the gambler

the prizefighter

the rake

the valet

the drunkard

the hero

the pickpocket

the politician

So, someone born on 24 June 1998, for example, would have a hero called Cackleworthy. Just the kind of hero we could all fall for, of course!

Even more fun to add given names. I fancy Tuguid Baphling Cackleworthy, myself, but you may have better ideas?

As for 11 August 1992 — well, work it out for yourselves…

12 thoughts on “Naming Minor Characters: Fun and Games with Names

  1. Sue McCormick

    Is it because I’m from the U. S., or am I getting too old? I don’t seem to understand your device; 9 September, 1927 — I can’t seem to get anywhere with this.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I’m so sorry I didn’t make it clear enough, Sue. The date of 9th (in column 1), gives you “chuckle” (in column 2), the month of September (in column 5) gives you “head” (in column 6) and the year ending in 7 (in column 7) gives you “the drunkard” (from column 8). So the full thing is “Chucklehead the Drunkard”. Not exactly flattering but not a bad name for a drunkard, I’d have said.

      I’ve changed one heading in the table in an attempt to make it clearer and added some instructions too. Hope it helps.

      1. Sue McCormick

        Thank you for the explanation. The true problem seems to have been in my download. I had ONLY the headings, NOT any of the words! No wonder I was confused! (I’ve been using computers since 1982 — you would think I’d expect glitches, but I never do!)

        1. Joanna Post author

          Ah, thanks for coming back with the explanation, Sue. I checked the email downloads of our blog, and they seem OK, with all the columns in the word grid so I’m afraid I’ve no idea why your download didn’t work. Hope you’ve been able to access the full thing now. As you’ll see from other comments, it seems to have provided quite a lot of fun.

  2. Elizabeth Bailey

    The valet Tottersmith is mine. Laughed at your 11 August example!
    I love the naming of characters and have played with names as well. My favourite gag was the family of Latin numbers because their parents didn’t care enough to give them decent names. My hero Septimus was obviously number 7 in Seventh Heaven. Dickens names are wonderful and because of the connotations also memorable. Lovely post.

  3. Sarah Mallory

    Ha – my character is Lovesham, the gambler. Since I am just starting a new book, he may well appear! Thanks, Joanna, for a fascinating and entertaining piece – a great start to my day!

    1. Joanna Post author

      I think that’s a great name for a gambler, Sarah. When I was dreaming up which words to put into my grid, I never imagined how very appropriate some of them might turn out to be. So far, though, I think Jerkbody the Pickpocket is in the lead, by a short head.

  4. Sophie Weston

    Oh dear, I have Mr Dithering the Hero. At first I thought he would be reaching for a deed poll application, but then decided he just has to Rise Above it, like A Boy Named Sue. There’s whole story in that!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Shows what an inventive author can do with potentially unpromising material. I think Jerkbody the Pickpocket just has to Rise Above It, too.

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