Sam Blake is a bestselling author who crashed into the No 1 slot in the bestseller list in 2016 with her first Cat Connolly book Little Bones. Every one of her books have hit the bestseller list – from the Cat Connolly crime trilogy to her psychological thriller standalones. Two have been shortlisted for Irish Crime Novel of the Year (Little Bones and The Dark Room) and Remember My Name is in shops now.
After seven books, Sam has created an awful lot of characters, and we asked her for her thoughts on character names. She explains:
I distinctly remember sitting in almost my first O’Level English Class (we were in the school library for some reason) and my English teacher explaining the significance of names in Dickens’ Great Expectations. Hearing that Estella meant star, and how that fitted with her role in the story was an absolute revelation. Pip and Magwitch similarly spoke volumes, as do so many of Dickens’ creations.
Not every author wants to give their characters literary impact with their choice of name, but that choice is hugely influential nonetheless.
Whatever your intention, your choice of character name speaks to the reader subliminally – they may have unconscious bias towards particular names, you obviously can’t control that, but you can use it to your advantage by subverting the readers assumptions and expectations.
Essentially, your mission as a writer is to deliver story – your characters need to be clearly defined and their names can do a lot of that work for you.
In How I Live Now the brilliant Meg Rosoff introduces fifteen-year-old Daisy, who is sent from Manhattan to England to visit her aunt and cousins she’s never met: three boys near her age, and their little sister (Piper). The boys are named Isaac, Edmond and Osbert and come from a privileged English background although their family has fallen on hard times. This is superb example of how much names can tell you about character – we can guess that it’s unlikely these three come from a council tower block in Glasgow downtown LA.
Think about who your characters are, their backgrounds and why they have the name they do. In Remember My Name, Cressida Howard comes from a very ordinary background, but her parents gave her a name that would fit where they wanted her to go: ‘Her name betrayed her parents’ aspirations for grandeur, but she’d been brought up a long way from a palatial Georgian seafront five-bed in Dalkey village.’
What does their name mean?
Google (as always) is your friend when it comes to naming characters – check out what the meaning of each name is. Not every reader will know, but for those who do you are enriching the text by adding an extra layer. Cressida means gold, and that’s what her parents wanted for her. Some cultures may associate additional meaning with a name which could cause issues between your reader and your character if that meaning is at complete odds with the reality on the page – a bit of research can go a long way.
I loved the name Cat when I developed Cat Connolly – she’s lithe and quick and shares many feline characteristics, but in fact we find out the origins of her name in the second Cat book In Deep Water:
‘OK, so my full name is Catherina Anna Maria Connolly. My mum wanted to call me Catherina Maria but my grandmother insisted on adding the Anna, after the Empress of Russia – she had high hopes for me.’
There was a pause. Then Jacob said, ‘There was a Catherina Maria who was a composer. Are you a composer?’
‘No, I’m with the Gardaí, I’m a detective.’
Another pause. ‘Just as well you’re not called Maria Catherina then, she was a Dutch serial killer. She killed twenty-eight people.’
Cathy fought the laughter bubbling up inside her. ‘How on earth do you know that, Jacob?’
Place and location
Names come in and out of fashion, and choosing names appropriate to the period you are writing in is basic common sense. Wayne may be popular first name today in some parts of the world, but in Victorian London, it doesn’t really fit.
Equally if your character is a contemporary thirty-year-old, there will be names which may seem too old for them. Think about when your character was born. Checking out the popular baby names in that year will give you a feel for the possibilities. There will always be anomalies (like Cressida) but have a reason for them, that feeds into your character themselves.
Think about location too, popular names in one part of the world may be completely alien in others – Wayne is likely to be more common in the US, than in Ireland, for instance.
Emily Jane, Cressida’s daughter in Remember My Name has a deliberately ‘girly’ name – she also has a frilly pink bedroom with fairy lights. She seems immature, a typical teen, but as the story develops we learn that she’s a lot sharper than she’s taken for, and very much in control of the situation. She really doesn’t like being underestimated, and she’ll do whatever it takes to make her voice heard – just like her mother. Her name plays with the reader’s assumptions which, towards the end of the book, are rapidly turned on their head.
Naming characters is like christening children – it’s vital to get right!
(c) Sam Blake
See Part 2 of this article here for more elements to consider in your quest for the perfect name, plus a bonus tip from Sam!
About Sam Blake’s Remember My Name:
‘This is an incredibly taut thrill with a tense undercurrent of threat rippling through every page. It’s compelling, modern thriller writing at its very best, combining sharply drawn characters with a dark, gripping plot. Utterly addictive!’ Victoria Dowd
If she’d turned off her phone, instead of listening in, perhaps no one would have died…
When Cressida Howard catches her entrepreneur husband playing away from home, she hires security expert Brioni O’Brien to get the evidence she needs for a speedy and financially rewarding divorce.
But what Brioni uncovers goes beyond simple infidelity. Because Laurence Howard is also in bed with some very dangerous people.
Bribery and blackmail are the least of his worries as someone comes after the women in his life – someone who is out to destroy Laurence and his empire, whatever the cost. And Cressida and her teenage daughter could soon be collateral damage, if she and Brioni don’t act fast.
Find out more here: https://www.samblakebooks.com/books/remember-my-name/