What’s in a Name?


What you call your characters is important!

Writers are often advised to avoid giving their characters similar names: Margot and Margaret, Joe and Jim for example, as it can create unnecessary confusion for readers. We are sometimes unaware we have done this until we edit our work – that’s when the ‘change all’ option is useful. Although this can bring its own problems. I once changed a character’s name from Ruth to Harriet – then realised the computer had altered all occurrences of the word ‘ruth’, causing such howlers as ‘tharriet’ (for truth) and ‘harrietless’ (for ruthless). Even funnier, a writer friend told me of a colleague who’d changed the name of her character ‘Martin’ to ‘Roger’ – and inadvertently created the suggestive invitation, ‘Let’s have a roger(i) in the garden’! Decisions about names can get us into big trouble!

But well-chosen names can add extra layers of meaning to our texts. F. Scott Fitzgerald, in The Great Gatsby, called his narrator Nick Carraway. A carraway is a rootless seed, easily blown hither and thither – which tells us something about Nick’s inability to settle. Similarly Daisy, a flower with gold at its centre, echoes Daisy’s reliance on her family’s old money, or Myrtle, a tough flower that flourishes in harsh conditions, as does the character of this name in the novel. Our understanding of the associations of Fitzgerald’s names adds to our understanding of his characters.

In Vanity Fair, Thackeray calls his heroine Becky Sharp, reflecting her determined, thrusting nature. Another character is called Rawdon Crawley – if you say the name out loud it makes a drawling sound, reflecting his aristocratic indolence.  

So let’s name our characters with care: it can make a big difference.