While I was galloping through brilliant Sophie Hannah’s new Poirot mystery, Closed Casket, it occurred to me that crime writers have to come up with an awful lot of character names.(All credit to them for that. Don’t you feel cheated when, in literary fiction, the narrator is unnamed? Where’s the fun?)
In crime fiction, you’ve got investigating officers, some of whom become household names. Then there are the associated PCs and DSs and DCIs, and forensics, medical and legal experts. There are witnesses, the suspects, the victims (often dispatched so early that they don’t even get the chance to try their names out), as well as their family, friends and enemies. To say nothing of the villain him or herself. In some of the crime fiction I’ve been editing, certain plot twists depend on characters having changed their names, so they have several. And a lot of crime writers publish a book a year, or two. It all adds up to a very many names.
It strikes me that crime writers have a lot more fun with names than most writers. Ian Rankin gave his detective John Rebus a name which is itself a puzzle. Ruth Rendell’s characters had the best names, in my view – like Ishbel Macsamphire in Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter and, in the same book, a Jonathan called Thanny because ‘We can’t all be called Jon.’ Point taken. Later, she named a book after a character with such poignancy that it made readers cry at the end of the book. (I won’t say which one in case you haven’t discovered it for yourself.) Rendell often took a real name and altered a letter, fearing litigation in case a real person claimed she’d written about them. I remember P.D. James, in one of their frequent double-acts, seeming aghast on realising that she herself pulled names from any real-life directory she came across.
Character names are so important. They have to sound credible, which is possibly why Daphne du Maurier didn’t opt for something as striking as my suggestion above, which I find pleasing because, as a lifelong fan of Petula Clark, it means it’s still up for grabs for the right person in the right book. Possibly.
Petula Clark … as Mrs De Winter?
My character Minna was always called that – in fact, the name conjured the character. To me it’s a bright-sounding name and that’s the sort of person she really is. In contrast, her potential boyfriend is someone who is easily deflated, a bit more glass-half-empty to Minna’s half-full, so I opted for a flatter-sounding name, Jeff. At some point during the writing of the novel, I introduced a new character, who was one of Minna’s colleagues.
I called her Gemma and after awhile she began to seem disconcertingly familiar. Then I realised why.
Gemma. It sounds so like Minna she might as well be Minna. And I realised she practically was Minna, although there was no room in the book for the doubling up of characters. So out she went (and I haven’t missed her).
It taught me an important lesson which I’m bearing in mind now with new work. I think names provide their own version of ‘heft and height’, to remind ourselves of Ann Patchett’s wonderful description of what the novel form facilitated her to do. I need to think more ambitiously when it comes to naming characters. Don’t worry: I’m not going to start writing about people called Apollo and Dionysus and Andromeda, but I am thinking of what a name can bring to a character and, in turn, to a story.
Ruth Rendell and P.D. James