What's In A Name? (Or, "Right Ho, Jeeves!")

Have any of you read P.G. Wodehouse?  I am devouring the Jeeves books right now (on "The Inimitable Jeeves" and just finished "Right Ho, Jeeves"), and one of the most delicious things about these books, which are like crack if you are a fan of British humor, is the names.  Gussie Fink Nottle.  Bingo Little.  G. D'Arcy "Stilton" Cheesewright.  Tuppy Glossop.  Bertram Wooster.  And, of course, Jeeves.  I consider J.K. Rowling another more recent master of the art, with names that almost eliminate the need for introductions for her characters: Bellatrix Lestrange, Albus Dumbledore, Draco Malfoy, Dudley Dursley.

The names of the character in the novel I'm working on are more of the "I browsed the student-directory of my kids' school" variety.  I am terrible at making up names.  But in some cases--or for some kinds of books--I think the names matter less than in others.  My book is set in contemporary New York, and my main character, in many ways, is meant to be a kind of every-woman: giving her a silly or unusual name wouldn't work.  On the other hand, Harry Potter is just the right name for a extraordinary/ordinary English boy, and I'm glad, for instance, that Rowling didn't name him Charles Smith.  (Though of course if she had, I might now think that was just the thing...though no, I don't think I would.)  

So I'd like to know -- what are some of your favorite names of characters from literature?  And, if you are a fiction writer, what are some of your favorite names of the characters in your own books?  

I do have one name in my novel I'm proud of -- it's the name I've given to the fictional physicist who invents...well I can't say more or I'll give too much away.  But her name is Dr. Diane Sexton.  She's named for my mentor and friend the late Diane Middlebrook, who wrote an award-winning biography of the poet Anne Sexton.  The real Diane was not a physicist, but of the fictional Diane, who retains much of her daring, panache, and brilliant determination, I believe she would have been proud.

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Comment by Kasey Arnold-Ince on May 14, 2013 at 5:26pm

Oh, reading the recent posts reminded me of Janet Evanovich and her Stephanie Plum mystery series: lots of characters with very coloful Jersey monikers ... Lula, Ranger, Connie Risolli, Diesel, Moon-Man, Tank, Salvatore "Sally" Sweet. Plus the many FTAs Stephanie's trying to apprehend, like Simon Diggery, Caroline Scarzolli, Melvin Pickle, Punky Balog, Myron Kaplan, Moses "Uncle Mo" Bedemier, Eddie DeChooch ...

Comment by Cheryl J. Fish on May 14, 2013 at 12:38pm

Eva Peace in Morrison's Sula; Gwendolen Harleth in Eliot's Daniel Deronda; Septimus Smith in Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.

In my novel Off the Yoga Mat, my protagonists  Lulu Betancourt and Nathaniel Dart (he is named after Nathaniel Hawthorne).

Comment by Diane Stringam Tolley on May 13, 2013 at 7:49am

Just discovered Wodehouse. Okay, yes, I'm a late bloomer . . .

Hmm . . . favourite names . . .

One of my books, written about 10 years ago, features a young woman named J'Aime. (Pronounced Jamie). And her little niece named Bree. I was so disappointed when a popular YA writer used 'Bree' in one of her books. Sigh.

Comment by Gueh Yanting, Claudine on May 12, 2013 at 6:26pm

Wodehouse was excellent and Bertie, dear ol' Bertie, is my favourite wormy-kind of hero. Glad you're enjoying the Jeeves series, Kamy. Dickens had a wonderful way of naming his characters, too. 

Comment by Carol Apple on May 12, 2013 at 10:06am

I agree with the others who name Dickens as the master of fictional names and, being a big fan of Mr. Dickens, I  have to share a just few of my favorites: Samuel Pickwick, Noddy Boffin, Joe Gargery, Clara Peggotty, and Wackford Squeers. But aside from Dickins there are so many others, some of which end up being absolutely organic to the character or the story. Would Huckleberry Finn be the same character with a different name? And how could there have been Moby Dick without Ishmael? Not to mention Ahab, Queequeg, Starbuck, Stuff, and well, Moby Dick?

Comment by Jeanne Nicholas on May 11, 2013 at 10:13pm

I loved the Tropical Storm series by Melissa Good and her primary character Dar is a great nickname for Paladar

Comment by Linda Griffiths-Gish on May 10, 2013 at 1:55pm

I write murder mystery games, so many times my character names have something to do with the character's function within the plot line - such as "Carrie Cash" or "Miracle Mulvaney."  However, the name I write under, Cordelia Smythe, is a name I imagined years ago as an "alias" should I ever want to runaway.  Now that the children are grown, the urge to r-u-n-n-o-f-t is not near as strong, so I adapted it to a pen name.

Comment by Urenna Sander on May 10, 2013 at 10:19am

I named the main characters in my book after friends, a former teacher’s surname, a doctor’s first name, and some were developed:  Alred (Al) Demery, Consuela (Connie) Moreno, Olivia Moreno, Reina Linda Moreno, Eleni and Ptolemy Verenis. Ian Fleming was good at naming his characters unusual names.

Comment by Mark Hughes on May 10, 2013 at 8:59am

This discussion ties into a pet peeve of mine - parents (fathers) who give their daughters feminized men's names. As in Roberta, Carla, Pauline, Alexandra, Josephine, etc. To me, it's more patriarchy in action. I even knew a Larrie Jo at one point in my life (three daughters in the family, father named Larry). That said, the main character in my novel is named Daniela - and when someone tells her it's a beautiful name, she says it's a feminized man's name.

  All THAT said, I agree that the bird theme in To Kill a Mockingbird appeals to me, as do the way the English name things like people, houses, and pets in general. Winston Churchill. Howard's End. Windy Corner. Lucy Honeychurch. And then there is an American strain: Jay Gatsby, Starbuck, Willy Loman, Ilsa Lund, Shrek.

Comment by Phyllis Jean Green on May 10, 2013 at 8:51am

LOVE Wodehouse!!  So right about the names he came up with.  I have trouble naming characters, and I think it is

timidity that is getting in the way.  The more unique a name is, the phonier it sounds, when it is your invention.

To me the all-time champ was Charles Dickens.   How can you possibly improve on Uriah Heep?   Mrs. Gummidge is perfect for a "lone, lorn creetur," and Mr. Micawber's lugubrious and melodramatic goings-on. . .can't think of a superlative strong enough to describe how fitting the name is.   Dickens hit the nail on the head every time.

I am drawing a blank right now re contemporary thriller writers who are good about choosing character names that are easy to sort out,  but it makes a lot of difference, I'm sure you agree.  Some of my faves are Lee Child, Jonathon Kellerman, and John Griffin, and they wouldn't be if their character names were often confusingly similar.

I chose thriller authors because if there is one thing you don't want, it is for who's who to outweigh who-dunit, right?

Not that names are less crucial in other genres. 

Obviously writing by the seat-o'-my-pants.  Sorry.



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