I was recently listening to an interview with a well-known crime fiction writer in which she was complimented on her character’s names. She said she knew the area her characters inhabited so the names came to her quite naturally. Her words confirmed for me that authenticity isn’t just about the historical facts or geographical description but also grows from the images we create of the people in their universe.
In writing A Shadowed Livery the setting for the deaths is fictitious but it is based on a real location in rural Warwickshire. Because the novel is set in 1938 and I knew the ages of the characters I was able to plunder the 1901 and 1911 censuses for the area to come up with names and surnames which fitted not only my vision of them but were also rooted in time and place. This possibly pampers to my obsessions with genealogy and research but I still think its an important consideration when naming our characters.
It is possible, of course, and sometimes desirable, to use an unusual name but we do need to be aware of its impact. We may, for example, love the name Scarlett, but if it doesn’t fit the time and place then any character we give the name probably must be one of the principals, slightly out of kilter with the rest of her world. There are, for example, only 1,600 men named Uriah in the 1851 England census, compared with almost 900,000 called James. There isn’t a single Uriah Heep, but what a character Dickens created there. It’s easy for us to now associate Uriah Heep with patronising sliminess or Ebenezer Scrooge (again, none in the 1851 census) with meanness, but Dickens didn’t have our hindsight, only the brilliance to devise names which fit the character. How did he do it? I don’t know but I feel a PhD thesis coming on!