At work the other day we were talking about unusual child names. It came up because a co-worker had met someone whose child was named “Absidy”. I said it sounded like a lovely name.
“It’s spelled “A-B-C-D”…” she said.
I filed away the name, not because I was planning to write the adventures of Abcd anytime soon, but because I have real trouble picking names for characters in my fiction. Absidy would be a welcome change from the Rogers, Brians, Susans and Sarahs that usually populate my plays. In fact, I have such trouble picking names that I once wrote a short play where no one else refers to anyone by name. For the record, they were called Simeon, Colophon, Astrid, Bobo and Tabor, but no one in the audience ever knew.
But for regular writing, you only need pick a name that suits your story. If your tale is set in the Western Hemisphere anytime after 1940, Roger and Brian and company will do just fine. If you’re populating a space station, you can probably still get away with it. But if you’re writing historical fiction, or about aliens or the denizens of the Fantasyverse, then pick carefully*.
For example, I once wrote a good deal of a story about Lyan the Barbarian Wanderer, before realising that everyone would read his name as “Lion”, not lee-arn. I was reading it that way in my head, but it wasn’t the logical pronunciation. Douglas Adams once revealed that the character “Slartibartfast” began life with a different name, one that was very funny written down, but incredibly rude and offensive when spoken out loud. Since he was writing “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” for radio at the time, the name had to change. And no respectable playwright should ever forget the disaster resulting from naming a character “Fanny”. Another character is concerned about Fanny’s sick friend and asks “Has the doctor seen her, Fanny?” There is no amount of emphasis that will rescue that line.
Whatever name you choose, make sure it’s spelled consistently throughout the book/script. If you are writing a script and your character name gets abbreviated by friends, don’t use that abbreviation to identify the character unless you have done so from the beginning, or you get something that looks like this:
DONALD: Hey, Champ, what’s up?
MICHAEL: Not much, Donnie, you?
DONNIE: I was going down to the beach, join me?
CHAMP: No time, gotta have my toes waxed.
Other things to watch out for are more to do with dialogue and whether or not it sounds natural. People don’t really use names very often in conversation (If they do, odds are they’ve just met someone and they’re using the name frequently to cement it in memory. It’s a good technique, but it sounds creepy when you’re on the other end of it.) The second major faux pas is something I know my friend Lucy V Hay would clench her teeth over. It’s a favourite of soaps and it goes something like this:
DAVE gets up and heads to the door. As he reaches it, Delores speaks.
DAVE turns back.
People do not do this.
What’s the worst name you’ve ever come across in a story? Clive Barker wrote one where a main character was called Hapexamendios, and the Ringworld books feature “Speaker to Animals” and Halrloprillalar Hotrufan. Can you do worse?
*If, at any point, you find one of your character names has an apostrophe in it, close down your computer, have a little lie down, then get up and find a new career.