I NAME THIS CHARACTER …
by Sophia Bennett
It’s hard work, this character naming thing. You’re racing along, really into the story, and your narrator bumps into a kooky old friend/nemesis/ghost, and suddenly you have to stop and wonder what they’re called. And it matters, it really does, because as readers we all bring big associations to the names of our favourite characters. If Bella Swan had been called Trisha McMillan, it wouldn’t have been quite the same. If Holly Golightly had been Mavis Dingle … would Audrey Hepburn ever have played the part?
My two favourite authors for character naming are JK Rowling (natch) and Derek Landy. They’ve both written long series, crammed with thrilling, death-defying creatures and kick-ass heroes and heroines, and they’ve come up with something amazing and perfect every time. Harry, Hermione, Dumbledore, Voldemort, Dobby … Skulduggery, Valkyrie, Tanith Low, China Sorrows, Ghastly Bespoke. Derek even gave himself the task if thinking up given and taken names.
Sometimes, we can mispronounce a character’s name in our heads for years. In Ballet Shoes, I was never sure if Petrova was PETrova or PetROVa. In Threads, I called my narrator NOnie, but many readers think of her as NONnie. Which is why in The Look I called the girls Ted and Ava: keep it simple was my motto. However, in Poland lots of people associate the name Ted with the recent film of that title, which isn’t appropriate at all.
I often get surnames from the local roads in Wandsworth. They were usually named after people, after all, so really I’m just recycling them. First names are much harder. Quite often, I steal names from girls I meet during school visits (I do warn them about this), or people from my past. In You Don’t Know Me I had to think of band names too. Here’s the story behind some of the most important ones:
Manic Pixie Dream Girls I have my fabulous writing friends, Keris and Luisa from Chicklish, to thank for this one. They both read way more than I do and they were having an intellectual discussion about chick-lit criticism, in which this term popped up. A manic pixie dream girl (see Wikipedia – I didn’t make it up, promise) is one of those girls in books or films who’s a bit kooky and mysterious, and whom the hero wants to find out more about, or possibly become. Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl is one. So is practically every Jennifer Aniston character since Friends. Also most of John Green’s heroines until Hazel in The Fault in our Stars. The idea of it annoys me slightly: although I’m fond of Jerry Spinelli, I prefer it when kooky girls are solid and real, not someone else’s dream. It’s a feminist thing of mine. But the name …. Manic Pixie Dream Girl … I loved it and I had to use it somewhere. So I gave it to a band. It is, however, a mistake, by the way. They would rather be the Powerpuff Girls.
Call of Duty are the Dream Girls’ nemesis. Throughout the writing process they were called the Nazi Zombies and nobody from my lovely, polite publishers questioned me on this. But it turned out that nobody from my lovely, polite publishers had boys at home who were into gaming, unlike me, so they didn’t know it was a famous video game and merely thought I was weird. However, we quickly realised that many, many non-gamers would be offended, and I offered to change the name to Call of Duty, the war game series that makes Nazi Zombies after all. It suits the band well: they wear show-off military jackets and play loud indie rock. If I ever do have a rock band (won’t happen), I think they’ll be Call of Duty, too.
Sasha, the narrator, is named after one of my old friends from school, who was dark and very pretty and looked a bit like the girl in a catalogue picture who helped inspire Sasha’s character. (You can see this picture – of a girl listening to music on a beach – on my mood board in the ‘Cover Story’ post of this blog tour, if you’re interested.) In real life, we all called Sasha ‘Squish’ at school. This doesn’t happen to Sasha in the book. Fortunately.
Rose is called Rose because it’s a name I’ve always loved. I might well have called a daughter of mine Rose. And also it’s the second name of Lily Allen’s younger sister, Teddy – who unknowingly donated her first name to Ted in The Look. This Rose is called Rose Ireland because one of the people who inspired her was Janet Devlin from 2011’s X-Factor (who got knocked out too soon, I thought), who was Irish. I was trying to think of a good Irish surname, but Ireland was easier and in the end it just stuck. Rose was originally Colleen in early drafts. #geekybennettfact
Nell is a lovely girl and I’ve got lots of Eleanors in my life. Nells simply have to be kind, happy souls, I think. And Tradescant is the name of a famous old Cornish gardening family. I used it for a previous unpublished detective novel and loved it so much I recycled here.
Jodie is cynical and spiky. I think her name comes a little bit from Jodie Foster, who’s played lots of feisty characters in films over the years. Anyway, she was always just Jodie to me. I think she got her name first.
Dan. Oh God. Naming boys in books. It’s got to be good, easy to pronounce, something that you find slightly sexy (or very sexy) but that hasn’t been used a trillion times before. In the band, Dan’s known as Brian for various reasons to do with stars and guitars. If I met him, I’d definitely refer to him as Brian.
Ed. See Dan, above. Known as Pops in the band.
Raj, the drummer in Call of Duty, is named pure and simply after Raj in Big Bang Theory, which is one of my favourite TV shows. Easy. Could have done that with the other two, but I couldn’t have a romantic hero called Leonard. Or Sheldon. Sorry, Joss Whedon. You are a TV writing god, but … no.
Cat, the bassist in Call of Duty. Ed says at one point that she doesn’t need a nickname: ‘Cat’ suits her. He’s right.
Roxanne Wills, the famous singer, was originally going to be called something else as well – I forget what – but I think I realised half way through that her name was incredibly similar to one I was already using. This happens to me all the time when I’m writing. In Threads, my copy editor had to point out that I had three characters called Henry. (Two were intentional, the third was not.) Anyway, Roxanne needed a name that stood out and I think the ‘x’ gives it that. It also reminds me of the Police song and anything that reminds me of Sting has got to be good.
Elliot, my favourite nerd, was going to be named after a boy with an unusual name at my sons’ school, but I thought he might notice one day so I changed it. Now he’s named after my old screenwriting tutor, Elliot Grove, who founded the Raindance Film Festival. Originally, Elliot had quite a small part in the book, but as I wrote, it got bigger and bigger. I love him now. He may be a hacker, and not entirely legal, all the time, but he’s a good guy. I nearly had him going out with Nell by the end, but there just wasn’t space for another relationship. I’d like to think they got it together later, though …