Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Sherrinford Holmes and the trouble with names

with 8 comments

So work on my second novel is coming along pretty well. Research is winding down; location work is finished. I’ve got a fairly good outline for Part I, a sense of the personalities and backgrounds of a dozen important—though still nameless—characters, and…

Hold on. I have a dozen important characters, but aside from a few holdovers from my first book, I haven’t named them yet. And I need to come up with some names soon. I have just over two weeks before I start writing, but even in the meantime, there’s only so much work I can do with signifiers like “best friend” and “ruthless assassin.” (Note: not the same person.) Characters need names before they can really come to life. And it’s often this step, even before the real imaginative work begins, that feels the most frustrating, if only because it seems so important.

Naming characters is so fundamental a part of the writing process that I’m surprised it hasn’t been discussed more often. John Gardner speaks briefly about it to The Paris Review:

Sometimes I use characters from real life, and sometimes I use their real names—when I do, it’s always in celebration of people that I like. Once or twice, as in October Light, I’ve borrowed other people’s fictional characters. Naming is only a problem, of course, when you make the character up. It seems to me that every character—every person—is an embodiment of a very complicated, philosophical way of looking at the world, whether conscious or not. Names can be strong clues to the character’s system. Names are magic. If you name a kid John, he’ll grow up a different kid than if you named him Rudolph.

I can’t speak to the experience of other writers, but for me, coming up with names for characters becomes more of a nightmare with every story. Unless you’re Thomas Pynchon, who can get away with names like Osbie Feel and Tyrone Slothrop, names need to be distinctive, but not so unusual that they distract the reader; evocative, but natural; easily differentiated from one another; not already possessed by a celebrity or more famous fictional character; and fairly invisible in their origins. (I still haven’t forgiven Michael Crichton for the “Lewis Dodgson” of Jurassic Park.) As a result, it takes me the better part of a day come up with even ten passable names. And it isn’t going to get any easier: the more stories I write, the more names I use, which means that the pool of possibilities is growing ever smaller.

So what do I do? Whatever works. Sometimes a character will have a particular ethnic or national background, like the seemingly endless parade of Russians in Kamera and its sequel, which provides one possible starting point. (Wikipedia’s lists are very useful, especially now that I no longer have a phone book.) I’ll consult baby name sites, scan my bookshelves, and occasionally name characters after friends or people I admire. And the names are always nudging and jostling one another: I try to avoid giving important characters names that sound similar or begin with the same first letter, for example, which means that a single alteration may require numerous other adjustments.

Is it worth it? Yes and no. It certainly isn’t for the sake of the reader, who isn’t supposed to notice any of this—the best character names, I’m convinced, are invisible. And with few exceptions, I’d guess that even the names that feel inevitable now were, in fact, no better or worse than many alternatives: if Conan Doyle had gone with his first inclination, it’s quite possible that we’d all be fans of Ormond Sacker and Sherrinford Holmes. But for the writer, it’s an excuse to brood and meditate on the essence of each character, even if the result barely attracts the reader’s attention. So I feel well within my rights to overthink it. (Although I’m a little worried about what might happen if I ever have to name a baby.)

Written by nevalalee

February 21, 2011 at 9:13 am

8 Responses

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  1. Despite having a certain fondness for Tyrone Slothrop and many other GR characters, I know what you mean.

    I was recently told about the Story Name Games Project, a PDF document with long lists of names suitable for a wide range of (admittedly mainly SF/fantasy) characters, places etc. The URL is:

    Click to access SGNP%20-%20First%20Pages.pdf

    It may or may not be useful but it’s certainly amusing.

    Jon Vagg

    February 21, 2011 at 10:00 am

  2. This is great—thanks! (Although the list of common Asian-American names really needs to include “Grace.”)


    February 21, 2011 at 10:05 am

  3. My train stop in Chicago is Irving Park, which I’m definitely going to use for a character one of these days.

    (Aside: I always wanted to name a character “Charleston” Chu, but apparently Veronica Mars got there first.)


    February 21, 2011 at 1:51 pm

  4. “…happen if I ever have to name a baby.)”

    The baby whispers its name to you.


    February 21, 2011 at 7:59 pm

  5. “As Alec, you have a natural interest in the welfare of your fellow man, and a desire to help and serve others in a humanitarian way.”

    Hmmmm. That doesn’t sound like me…


    February 21, 2011 at 8:34 pm

  6. Yep…doesn’t sound like you…

    (gales of laughter)

    How do you know I read? one used that word “gales”…

    The name “Obama” is quite the description if you are interested.


    February 21, 2011 at 10:07 pm

  7. you may have to resort to name-creating memes like the ones that determine your jedi or porn aliases.


    February 22, 2011 at 11:13 pm

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