After writing twenty novels, I’m running out of names for my heroes. Women aren’t a problem. There are plenty of lovely girls’ names and I don’t think I’ll ever be scrabbling round for a suitable name for a heroine. No, it’s the men. I’ve started to recycle them. I’ve had two Richards, two Joes, a Dan and a Daniel, a Tom and a Thomas. While I’m roughing out the ideas for a new novel, I flip through lists of baby boys’ names with the avidity of a new parent, rejecting one after another.
Trevor’s a perfectly decent name, of course. It stems from a Welsh place-name, but I’ve never written a hero called Trevor… or Keith, Kevin, Colin or Gavin, come to that. They’re all fine names for a secondary character but no use for a hero. Although they were in existence during the period I’m writing about, they were uncommon until the mid-twentieth century. They belong to a category of boys’ names that are not only out of fashion now, but are also unsuitable for a character born in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.
I can’t give my characters the names of close family members. It would be too disconcerting. So no Iain, David, Christopher, Harry, Ewen, Alexis, Dominic … and recently a slew of grandsons have wiped out half a dozen more boys’ names. Nor can I use names I associate with someone unpleasant… that boy who used to tease me on the school bus, that overbearing politician.
Some boys’ names popular in the Twenties and Thirties are coming back into fashion. Alfie, Albert, Arthur, Teddy, Freddie and Archie (I’ve used almost all) currently feature in the top one hundred most popular names for baby boys, and all were commonly used in the Twenties and Thirties. Will other boys’ names long ago considered appealing come back into fashion? Will there be little Reginalds, Ernests, Quentins, Algernons and Humphreys in twenty-first century nursery schools? Horace is already on the up – I encountered a very small Horace in a café not long ago. It’s an old and noble name, but I don’t think I’m quite ready to call a hero Horace.
I tend to fall back on the perennials. Richard, Edward and its variants, Charlie, Jack, Max, Thomas, Joe, are all names that, if not top of the charts now, have thrived for centuries and had a timeless appeal. A hero’s name must encapsulate both depth and dash. I’ve used a scattering of unusual names that have felt appropriate to the era I’m writing about – Derry, Devlin, Ash. Biblical names – Jacob, Joshua, Caleb – convey solidity, important in a character who must be attractive and intriguing.
A hero’s name must be easy to pronounce – and as a lot of my books are sold in translation, I prefer it if they can be pronounced by people whose first language isn’t English. Back when I was reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy, it used to drive me nuts when an author invented impossible names for their characters, often by including lots of consonants and maybe an apostrophe or two. But it also has to be memorable. It shouldn’t be so ordinary that you’ve forgotten it as soon as you’ve closed the book.
The name has to suit the character. Sometimes I sketch in my hero’s characteristics first and then look for a name to fit, at other times I know the name and construct the character around it. When the hero first appears, his looks, demeanour – and name – will create a whole series of preconceptions. A reader will feel differently about a Daniel and a Trevor, a Jack or a Horace.
But then, I’ve always thought that people grow into their names. My own name, Judith, is a serious sort of name. What sort of person would I have been if my parents had called me Poppy or Jenny? Would I have been a more frivolous woman, given to party-going or drinking cocktails while wearing slinky gowns? Perhaps a hero grows into his name, too. Perhaps one day I’ll give Trevor or Horace a chance…