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Quite a lot, it seems. In a name, that is.

Juliet might have thought, in the throes of youthful passionate love at first sight, that it didn’t matter what Romeo’s name was, but readers of novels often respond differently.

And writers too, of course.

In the recent live Facebook interview I did with Hillingdon libraries, I was asked by a member of the online audience how I choose the names of my characters – a great question that actually took some thought to answer.

After all, names are so important. We all hold connotations and associations with names. Names suggest qualities or personalities or specific character traits to us – entirely subjectively, no doubt, but undeniable. We have memories of children in our primary school class whom we disliked, feared or envied – and names from secondary school, perhaps, that we associate with extreme intelligence or sporting prowess or estimable sophistication. And if you are a teacher or have ever taught, names loaded with dread or profound irritation are inevitable even decades after that said individual had left our supervision and care …

There is, of course, a link with particular eras. Fashions in names are much in evidence – with a fairly cyclical pattern meaning that names we once thought very outmoded and discarded are creeping their way back into nursery and reception classes. Ethel?  Surely not. Ada? Unlikely. Mavis? Never. But not so long ago we were making the same judgements about the Maisies and Irises and Agathas who are now happily finding their names above their pegs in the infant cloakroom.

Some names stand the test of time, of course. And so often these are names we find in classic novels. Think Jane and Elizabeth and Charlotte and Anne – Emma and Harriet and Lucy and Lydia. All, interestingly, names we could easily find on the pages of a contemporary novel and fairly neutral in what we expect of the character.

But venture into the world of Thomas Hardy and names become a little more charged. I mean, The Return of the Native’s Eustacia Vye trails expectations of a certain kind before she has even spoken – and she certainly doesn’t fail to live up to anticipation – and Bathsheba Everdene is clearly not going to settle easily for Farmer Oak’s affections with such a mouthful of a name as that.  And the very claim to the surname D’Urbeville as a replacement for the more prosaic Durbeyfield sets Tess off on her fated path to disaster from the start – if only her pitiful, helpless father hadn’t been so anxious to make spurious ties with the ancient family poor Tess would have been spared the dastardly Alec and settled down early on with Angel Clare. (let’s not even go there – Angel? Not entirely …) But, of course, it would have been rather a brief and dull affair of a novel as a result, which just goes to show how important and potentially significant names are.

So how do writers choose names?

I have to like the names I use – or at least not heartily dislike them. The names of characters stick around for a long time and have to be typed endlessly over the composition of a novel. So an awkward spelling is undesirable for a start.

I avoid using the names of anyone I know personally. Immediately, that name will conjure a face, an attitude or personality type that can be intrusive. So family names and those of close friends are out.

Back to the association with a particular era.

As I set my novels in the fairly recent past, I have to consider the names that were fashionable and popular when my characters were born. My next novel MILLER STREET SW22 only retreats to 2005/06, so there was little restriction and I could focus on character qualities that I felt a name suggested. And some names came immediately to mind: Frances Chater, Catherine Wells, Eddie Wells, Sam and Lydia Gough – all suggested traits that I hope will be conveyed to the reader.

My next novel, already titled LILY PAGE, is set further back in 1983 with a couple of characters born in the late 19th century. Here, their names sprang instantly onto the page – it took no consideration before Walter Page and Dorothy Page established themselves and the name of my principal, eponymous character has particular significance since her first name is, in fact, Helen, and family habit has established the use of her middle name, Lily, something that will be significant and relevant to the plot….

Once a character is named, it’s a little like with one’s children – it’s impossible to think of them as being called anything else. However long the dithering before they were born with the list of various alternatives building daily, once the name is settled and applied, it seems to define their very existence and reality.

So too with books.

Having just completed MILLER STREET SW22 I am still thinking of the fortunes of Catherine and Sam and Polly and all the others – wondering how they are faring without my daily attention to their every word and deed. What has happened to them since I abandoned them on the last page? Have they made the most of the opportunities I signed them off with? I mean, I’ve lived with them for well over two years now so they really are pseudo family and I feel a little loco parentis. 

But I’ve moved on, of course. Novel 4 is underway.

And now it’s not only Lily Page and her aunt Dorothy whose names are becoming as familiar as my own, but Stella Fox and Hugh Murray – two vital supporting characters who already for me are summed up by the particular syllables of their names, the rhythm and intonation they hold.

So, Juliet –  in many ways you are so wrong.

There is a lot in a name – for the writer, for the reader. And I am sure Shakespeare’s choice of Juliet Capulet and Romeo Montague – combinations of consonants and vowel sounds that seem suggestive of her decisiveness and his dreaminess – was long considered and carefully decided.

They have certainly stuck and proved longevity as a memorable play title, anyway!


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