Choosing names for the characters in a novel isn’t the delightful self-indulgent process you might imagine it to be. A whole load of complications and worries crop up, some of them too late…
There are obvious guidelines. Don’t have characters with similar sounding names or even starting with the same letter. Vary the length of names. Avoid names that have developed particular associations in the modern mind. Get the generation right. A man under eighty is unlikely to be called Reginald, Derek or Eric. Women called Joan, Dorothy or Barbara will probably be seventy plus.
But already one is entering a minefield.
The off-stage mother-in-law in my novel All Desires Known is nicknamed Buttery Barbara by my heroine; Barbara is someone who spreads her fundamentalist views too thickly – at least in the eyes of her daughter-in-law Nell. The reader may perceive that Nell is an unreliable witness; the worst we actually gather about Barbara is that she overdoes her well-meant evangelism. Buttery is nicely ambiguous… All the same, apologies had to be made to the three altogether lovely Barbaras I know – and Barbara Pym is my favourite author.
Some characters cry out to be called by a particular name; they wouldn’t become as real with any other. The godly chaplain in All Desires Known was always going to be called Martin (after reading the moving story of Martin White Benson, son of Archbishop Benson, who died aged seventeen of meningitis, in David Newsome’s fascinating study of Victorian education and Christianity, Godliness and Good Learning). Illogically, my sadistic bully had to have the surname Benson. Unfortunately this is also the surname of my kind doctor. More explanations required.
It was only at proof-reading stage that I realised my heroine and slippery husband had almost identical names to the happily married couple down the road. Some hasty last-minute adjustment ensued. Worst of all was discovering that a character who comes to a sticky end shares a name with someone to whom an old friend had just become engaged.
So, some unexpected snags, and alarm about hurting people’s feelings. But I suppose you’d never publish anything at all if you worry too much. A remark attributed to the American film producer Samuel Goldwyn offers a comforting perspective: ‘Now why did you name your baby ‘John’? Every Tom, Dick and Harry is named ‘John’.