What’s in a name? Authors on choosing names for their characters

From Margaret Atwood’s Offred to Thomas Harris’s Hannibal the cannibal, names can end up shaping characters in ways even their creators never intended

According to series creator Bruce Miller, the third series of The Handmaid’s Tale, soon to be on our screens, is going to be a “lot more rebellious”. “I think June’s taken a lot,” he says, “it’s time for her to give back some.” But close readers of Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopian novel in which the Emmy-winning drama is rooted will know that June Osborne, played by Elisabeth Moss, is never given that name in the book. Her character, struggling to survive in the Republic of Gilead, is referred to simply as Offred.

One of the many reasons Atwood’s modern classic has proved so enduring is her inventive use of names. “This name is composed of a man’s first name, ‘Fred’, and a prefix denoting ‘belonging to’, so it is like ‘de’ in French or ‘von’ in German,” Atwood has written, “Within this name is concealed another possibility: ‘offered; denoting a religious offering or a victim offered for sacrifice.” While Atwood, whose sequel The Testaments will be published in September, never intended Offred to have any other name, she accepts that readers now use June. “Some have deduced that Offred’s real name is June, since, of all the names whispered among the Handmaids in the gymnasium/dormitory, ‘June’ is the only one that never appears again. That was not my original thought but it fits.”

From Atwood’s handmaids to amoral A&R man Steven Stelfox in John Niven’s Kill Your Friends (and recent follow up, Kill ’Em All) and Ian Rankin’s much-loved Inspector Rebus, authors often choose names to signpost a character’s traits or position in society. Think of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, surely made more memorable by a name that rhymes with cannibal. And it can’t be coincidence that Thomas Harris’s FBI recruit Clarice Starling’s name makes her reminiscent of a small bird, finding her way in the world.

Rankin has explained his choice of character name: “I was studying literary theory when I wrote that book, and I liked the notion of stories as games played between author and reader. Later I was told Rebus is also a Polish surname – so I now occasionally mention that he has Polish roots.”

Ken Stott as Inspector Rebus.
Ken Stott as Inspector Rebus. Photograph: SMG TV Productions

Over the decades, many names have passed into everyday parlance. Charles Dickens’s miser Scrooge has become synonymous with tight-fistedness and a hatred of the festive season. And when scientists discovered that pining for a lost love can be physically addictive, they dubbed it the “Miss Havisham effect” after the tragic, jilted recluse in Great Expectations.

Dickens occasionally missed the mark when choosing evocative character names, such as the schoolteacher in Hard Times, Mr M’Choakumchild. While some names enhance a novel, others can have the opposite effect. Take Brock Vond, the villain from Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, or Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke from his Mason & Dixon – for me both distracting and hard to read. And there are more serious pitfalls, legal and ethical, such as accidentally calling a fictitious war criminal after a real individual in the Balkans, as David Savill did in a pre-publication version of his thriller They Are Trying to Break Your Heart. Fortunately, the name was changed before it went into print. And, as Rankin explained, his choice of Siobhan Clarke for Rebus’s colleague has been problematic as “many people don’t seem to know how to pronounce it”.

How does an author go about selecting a name? Rankin has “some fun by naming minor characters after footballers or musicians”. When I come across interesting names, I squirrel them away for later use. In my debut Rattle, the name of my central character, Erdman Frith, came from Erdman Penner, a producer of Disney’s original Cinderella. I remembered it because of its resemblance to Everyman. In my latest novel, The Neighbour, its detective Wildeve Stanton was inspired by a sparky nine-year-old girl I met, who was named after a character in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native.

If you’re still in any doubt as to whether names can make or break a book, ask yourself this: would Gone with the Wind have enjoyed such enduring success if instead of Scarlett O’Hara, Margaret Mitchell had stuck with her original choice, the infinitely forgettable Pansy?

The Neighbour by Fiona Cummins is published by Macmillan (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Fiona Cummins

The GuardianTramp

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