Naming Rights: What To Call Your Fictional Characters

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Get ready for another royal baby name frenzy. The internet is abuzz with just what Prince Harry and Meghan will name their daughter, especially as Meghan’s is apparently ready to take maternity leave in May. Right now, UK betting companies are opting for Diana as a strong favourite, (HuffPost) although other popular bets include tried and true royal names like Elizabeth and Victoria….although with punters backing pop culture choices such as Oprah, Kamala, Camilla and Ivanka, it might be a good idea to check in with the professionals about how to give a memorable character a memorable name.

Fiction writers do it day in and day out – giving characters distinctive monikers that easily reflect age, culture, social class and education without the need for a lengthy back story.

Would Harry Potter have been as successful with the name Theodore Potter? Or Julian Potter? No – Harry is plain, ordinary and solid. Theo and Jules are redolent of different sorts of parents all together. Just as the future King of England wouldn’t call his son Maverick, it’s hard to believe in a crime novel with a fictional hitman named Crispin. Names locate the person. Contextualise their character and place in the world. Names have meaning. Names have strength – or not.

Just as you wouldn’t call a child the name of a bully or despised former lover, writers avoid names that have been used by others and are too well known. Or if we do, we must do so very consciously – the romantic Darcy in Bridget Jones Diary, for instance. Likewise, we don’t decide to call characters in a romantic novel Romeo and Juliet unless we want to pay homage to the Bard – or play against type and not have the lovers star crossed. Perhaps they live out their days in the suburbs and we see them middle aged and cranky about school fees? Or maybe in a nursing home, with dementia, muttering “heaven is here, where – what’s her name???- lives”. Names have baggage. Implications. Names are not innocent bystanders in a novel.

Fiction writers can let their imagination run wild. Indeed, they must for there is always the problem of naming rights. If you name a character after a real person, you might land yourself in trouble.

I know of writers who had to change names in their memoir – not for legal reasons, but because it was inhibiting. A name can haunt the page.

A name reflects a person’s age, class, status. It is quick code from the author to the reader. I expect a character called Charlotte will be a different person to her contemporary Charlene. Yes, it shouldn’t matter, and yes, it does. An Australian character called Charlene will always have baggage. And yes, as fiction writers, we can use this to our advantage.

Let us speculate.

Imagine you are at an art gallery opening. Our excited parents-to-be are an architect and curator. They are hipster cool, they wear oversized black glasses. They do not watch reality television. I know these people, because I move in this crowd. I am a curator as well as writer, with an exhibition (Future U) coming up in July. I may have overheard this conversation – but I imagined it instead.

“How about Robert, or Tom. You know – Tom Roberts?” said James. “An art reference?”

“Too old fashioned,” Elsie pulled a face. “How about Sienna?

“Too celebrity baby, I think. I mean, why name an Aussie child Dakota or Indiana? Why not something local like Leongatha or Koo-wee-rup?”

“I meant Sienna after the colour – with a double ‘n’ – not the Italian city. Everyone has done the single ‘n’ Siena,” Elsie tossed her hair back, for emphasis. “After all, I am a curator.”

“Don’t you think that’s a rather insensitive choice for the child of a colour blind man?”

It was true, Elsie always forgot this salient point. It perhaps explained James’ dislike for abstract art. It all looked like mud to him. The slick, impenetrable brown surface of the Yarra River that separated their city and was still a source of tension since they married. Elsie’s friends came from Northcote, James’ from St Kilda. North of the river, south of the river. It was a tram ride, but damn it, it mattered.

“Maybe we should think about something different – like the Periodic Tables? Beryl has a a nice, old fashioned ring to it.” Elsie thought it seemed the sort of hipster sounding old people’s home name that would look so good online in a lifestyle feature, in a large black and white photograph of her and the baby (just like Meghan and Harry’s recent pregnancy photos). Elsie could see it now – “Elsie, 34, Independent Melbourne curator, and baby Beryl, 6 months, at the opening of her latest exhibition ‘The Art Of Swap Cards’, and a pithy quote about breastfeeding and weaning on organic carrot puree.

“I’m not sure about that,” said James. He pushed up his heavy bamboo framed glasses – which were actually very uncomfortable but he felt made him stand out in his architecture practice – and pondered the implications of a son called Boron.

(Boron the Moron? This was Melbourne after all, the kid might get teased at AusKick)

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“Maybe Argon, and even Tungsten sound interesting.” James took a moment to imagine an article featuring his new side line of recycled office chairs as alternative baby furniture in a large feature in the latest niche design magazine, along with baby Argon strapped to his chest in a (recycled) baby carrier. By then his cable knit vest would be an even dirtier oatmeal color, so the vivid blue of the baby carrier would really resonate on the page. But wait – while Argon sounded a bit Viking – and that was butch – wasn’t it also – a gas? Oh no – fart jokes in the playground.

“I think we should stick to writers; much better. After all,” James paused – taking a sip of his Kombucha (he was trying to avoid incurring Elsie’s wrath by not drinking wine in front of her at gallery openings) “What about Chandler? Nero, Ellery or Innes?”

“Nero?”

“After Nero Wolfe, the sophisticated New York sleuth.”

“How will it go down in the playground? In Melbourne?”

“Okay then what about Conan?” suggested Lawrence. “That sounds tough.”

“After Conan the Barbarian?” Elsie asked. “Or that American talk show guy with red hair?”

“You twit, for Arthur Conan Doyle who created Sherlock Holmes!”

“You think it would be culturally inappropriate if we have a boy and calleded him Kazuo?”

Of course, as a writer from an English speaking country, I can write about my own culture (and the two non English speaking cultures I am related to via my parents), but it is a different matter when it comes to naming characters of other nationalities.

In Australia, the post war years were ones of assimilation. Migrants were expected to drop their ‘complicated’ cultural names and adopt English ones. As a Greek Australian writer, any Greek characters I write over the age of 50 for instance, would be thus called Basil, not Vasilios, or Vicki, not Aphrodite. But any Greek character under the age of 30 will be given their actual ethnic name – Nonda, or Stavros, and so on.

Of course, names that were once reviled or out of fashion are now becoming de rigueur, especially among the gallery scene. No artist would call their daughter  or son Kylie or Wayne, even if they wanted to be very, very ironic. That said, I did meet an artist who had the most beautiful name – it might have been Violet or Dymphna. I complimented her on her parent’s wise choice, and she admitted, sadly, she would have preferred to be called Sharon.

I was working a gallery opening recently and my name tag was clearly visible. As the photographer grabbed the final shots, some young artists chased their toddler around the building. I didn’t hear them call her, but the mum saw my name tag and squealed in delight.

“Our daughter is called Evelyn!” she said. She called her daughter over and got her to look at my name tag  – “see Evie – it’s another Evelyn!”

My heart sank. I felt the unmistakable excitement in her voice of a hipster name trend. And I was being viewed as the Grand Dame of the Name.

It got worse.

“There are three Evelyns in her class at kinder – so we have to use initials as well – Evelyn C, Evelyn L and Evelyn G.”

One gets used to having an unusual name. I have always been the only Evelyn – anywhere, and I like that! Mine was an old name, and in a sea of Traceys, Sharons, Michelles and Lucys, I had the lovely Evelyn. Lucky me. And now – Evelyns were popping up everywhere, it seemed.

And where did these artists find the name for their daughter? On a headstone in the Melbourne Cemetery in Carlton, that’s where. A prime location near the University of Melbourne. Deep in the heart of aspirational terrace house living. I can imagine all the pregnant artists wandering through checking out the graves for names no one else has and coming up with – Evelyn. All of them.

“We though – oh wow, such an unusual name no one will have that!” they told me.

Being an Aussie gal, I of course get my lovely name shortened to Ev, Evo, Eve, and Evie. Personally, I prefer Evelyn. And pronounced correctly, please (not as in Evelyn Waugh). I am also asked quite often what is Greek about my first name. My mother will tell you I am named for someone she admired called Evelyn. My father always said I was named for his mother Evangelia.

I spent my entire life blissfully insulated from any other Evelyns more or less, and I enjoyed having a very old fashioned, though (I think) terribly pretty and traditional name. That can be gender neutral. Again, think Evelyn Waugh. All throughout school and university as an undergrad, there was never another Evelyn.

Now, here was a little Evelyn running around the gallery – one of many. Not good. My parents chose my name because it was strong and distinctive and worked cross culturally.

When it comes to naming my characters, I like to chose unusual names, not ones that “dribble off the page” in anonymity. Names give us place, time, social standing, and naming your character is as important as naming your children or your pets. Perhaps more so, because the look of the name on the page is important.

Naming rights for fiction writers is an ongoing issue, as we continue to write and think up characters and need to name them. And we don’t want a name everyone else has chosen, do we? I mean, who’d name a character Hermoine again? Or Harry?

As for Meghan and Harry – I am throwing in a wild card here and predicting they name their daughter Hebe after the Greek Goddess of eternal youth, in remembrance for Harry’s dear late grandfather, Prince Phillip, born on a Greek Island, and as a nod to Harry’s new adopted country and its obsession with youth.