Ask any writer and they will tell you that names are important. They tell us so much about a character – their age, social standing and they can even tell us something about their personality. Compare the image that springs to mind when a character is called Gloria with another named Mary. True, old-fashioned names comeback into fashion and we all know a feisty Mary who is neither motherly nor shy and retiring, but there is a certain expectation that readers have when they come across a character’s name for the first time in a novel.
Few writers can get far with a character until they have decided on a name. That’s not to say that when I discover one of my characters doesn’t turn out quite the way I’d anticipated – my characters have a habit of taking over and going their own way – the original name no longer fits, and I need to find an alternative.
In my latest novel, the name of one of my characters leads to confusion conveniently muddying the waters as Harry and Aunt Jessica attempt to unravel the mystery surrounding the death of one of their fellow passengers. My character didn’t start out with that name when I began writing, but, for some reason, a memory from my student days came to mind. A friend of mine was known affectionately not by her Christian name (this was long before the PC “forename” replacement was forced upon us) but by a contraction of her surname. I’m not sure if such a practice still operates for young girls these days but it was quite common back in the sixties and seventies when few grammar schools were co-educational. Even when I did my teacher training, mine was an all-girls college.
Many authors use a penname for a variety of reasons. Novelists who write in different genres tend use a different author name for each genre. Even Agatha Christie published her romance novels under the name Mary Westmacott. By the time her new adult crime series was published, it was an open secret that Robert Galbraith was the penname of J. K. Rowling.
What we choose to call ourselves is important. Richard may become Dick, Dicky, Rich or Richie. In a TV adaptation of Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lindley stories, I vividly remember Linley insisting his name was Tommy not Tom.
A significant number of people choose to be called by their second name either because they dislike their first or because it causes confusion. One of my friends was known in her student days as Glad – short for Gladys after her mother (which was old-fashioned and rare even then), but when she got engaged, her future mother-in-law was also called Gladys. Three women at family gatherings with the same name was much too confusing so my friend adopted her middle name.
According to her birth certificate, my grandmother’s name was Margerite, but everyone called her Daisy. My mother was christened Eleanor but was always known as Betty which is what her older brother nicknamed her from when she was a baby. The name stuck. I tolerated being called Ju-ju when my brother was learning to talk, but woe betide anyone who calls me Judy!
The names people use in their email addresses fascinate me. I have so many friends I have never met in person whose email handles conjure up vivid pictures for me from one of the earliest ‘Celtic girl’ to a whole list of more recent ones which I hope they won’t mind me sharing including:- Harry Potter nut, The jam home, Miss blondie, Soccer mom, Bookshop lover, Red ink and coffee, Crazy cat lady, Little ladybug, Super nan, Windy city, Proud gammie, Honey mum and the list goes on!