JAN BROGAN _ Since Barbara Hambly's first published fantasy in 1982 – The Time of the Dark – she has touched most bases in genre fiction: her most recent vampire novel is The Magistrates of Hell (Severn House, 2012) and her most recent historical whodunnit, Ran Away, continues the well-reviewed Benjamin January series. She also writes historical mysteries as Barbara Hamilton (The Ninth Daughter, and its sequels A Marked Man and Sup With the Devil). In addition – when she can – she writes short fiction about the further adventures of characters from her fantasy novels of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
How is it that the villain’s evil henchmen are always named things like Ugmush and Weevil?
Did Mr. and Mrs. Orc, gazing adoringly upon their little hatchling, exclaim, “How cute he is! How dimpled and sweet! Let’s call him Ugmush!”
Or is “Ugmush” Orcish for “Bright Hope”?
(How would you tell?)
I’m as guilty as anyone else in this department. I spend a lot of time over the names of my characters, trying on one after another, as if the names were reflections of – and clues to – their personalities.
Villains are easy. You can tell Charles Dickens had a lot of fun in that department: names like Skimpole and Krook, Bumble and Scrooge and Dedlock, all reek of petty viciousness. Dickens had a beautiful knack for making extremely English-sounding names that were sly digs at those who labored under them. I try to do the same, with occasional (I think) success. In the Benjamin January series, I generally thumb through my well-worn glossary of archaic colonial English, to find words for vile things which I then make the names of slave-dealers in the stories, names like Gleet (a genital sore caused by venereal disease) or Mulm (the disgusting green amalgam of algae and fish-poo that develops at the bottom of an aquarium if you don’t clean it often enough).
Heroes, sidekicks, and secondary characters (whom I persist in thinking of as “guest stars” thanks to WAY too much television as a child) require a different combination of euphony and likelihood. Though in Real Life people generally receive their names completely at random, in a novel, a hero has to sound like a hero… or at least not sound trivial. For whatever reason, and I’m not sure why, some names sound stronger than others. Not many people would take seriously a spy named Clarence Bond. Or Ted Bond. It could be done, but the writer of the book had better be damn good to carry it off. Yet Clarence, or Theodore, are perfectly good English names (along with such other rejects as Evelyn, Wilf, Howard, and Alfred). And in fact they’d be fine for a secondary character – a cab-driver, or the friendly shlub that the villain kills in Chapter Two just to prove what a rotter he is.
But not for the hero.
I have a whole shelf of name-the-baby books for this purpose, the best of which is Peoples’ Names, by Holly Ingraham (MacFarland Press), which was written for role-players and divides them up by nationality, gender, and, wonderfully, time-period. In the Middle Ages, nearly everybody was named Henry or Matilda. I’ll admit I’m a perfectionist, but nothing drops me out of a romance quicker than twelfth-century heroines named Brittany. When writing about that time-period, one has to work with a fairly small list of female names, though after the Protestant Reformation you get a slew of Biblicals and with the Renaissance you acquire all sorts of classical Greek and Roman options.
The book also has typical last names (for those eras that used such things), but often I’ll either comb through research books for the names of contributers or archivists (Guillenormand sounds, for some reason, a lot more authentically French than the usual fallbacks like LaSalle and Dumonde), or I’ll do what Georgette Heyer did, and look for place-names in an atlas. How much more English can you get than Marden or Kinver? Some people simply use telephone directories. I am frequently reminded of that scene in The Mighty Aphrodite, where Woody Allen and Helena Bonham Carter are trying to come up with a name for their adopted infant: Eric? Groucho? Phileas? Phileas is a guy who forecloses on a mortgage…
It’s a comfort to me to know that Dickens occasionally did what I do, and named all the major characters in the book names which start with the same letter (my editors are always getting on me for that): Smallweed, Snagsby, Summerson, Skimpole in the same tale. I catch myself doing that and then I have to fumfer around looking for another name that has the same “ring”. (My current project, one of the “guest stars” has gone through about seven different names. Either they just don’t sound quite right, or they’re too similar to somebody else’s in the same story.) (Or else I discover – with the same sort of “unconscious plagiarism” suffered by George Harrison when he wrote “My Sweet Lord” to a tune that turned out to be the old Chiffons hit, “He’s So Fine” – that the name that sounds so right, sounds so right because I’ve heard it someplace else, like Robert Morley or Thomas Wyatt or, famously, Ford Prefect. That’s where a quick pass through Google really helps).
And of course, once you get into fantasy, all bets are off. Though I will say that random name-generators that simply mash letters, more often than not produce things that don’t sound like names. One can’t – or at least I can’t – imagine anyone’s friends really saying, “Hi, Mrsquipx, how’s it going?” Anyone who hangs out long enough on World of Warcraft is familiar with this phenomenon. Again, it’ll work occasionally for cab-drivers but not for the hero. And anyway, the last time I was putting together ideas for a fantasy, an editor told me that people seem to prefer those sort of almost-English names (like Bilbo, Frodo, Pippin and John Stark) that are easier to remember, rather than Azathoth and Frasticarion.
Are other writers as OCD about their characters’ names as I am?
Do other people fret and fuss and try them on and off like sweaters, trying to get them just right? (Margaret Mitchell called her heroine Pansy O’Hara all the way up to the final draft of Gone With the Wind… PANSY???)
Often when I’m putting together a new story, the first day consists of just writing lists of names: Who ARE these people?
Pansy O’Hara, meet Wilfred “Skippy” Bond…
Where do you get your character names from? How important are names, anyway?
Barbara's short fiction can be purchased via download from her website, www.barbarahambly.com. She teaches History part-time, and if you’re interested in her views on the weather, her cats, World of Warcraft, and sometimes writing, you can read her blog at barbara_hambly@ livejournal.com. She also does Twitter. Now a widow, she shares a house in Los Angeles with several small carnivores.