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
Dickens was the master of naming characters, I reckon. Who can forget Mr Pecksniff, or Mr Bumble, or Abel Magwitch?
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 and Mr Bumble, by Kyd — and the Dickens mural in Devonshire Terrace, London
Jane Austen: a bit less adventurous on the naming front?
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
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.
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:|
-sham or -am or -em
-alls or -halls or -balls
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…