creating characters with real names

AlexanderTurnbull

Alexander Turnbull

One of the great joys in life is naming children.  Writers extend that joy by naming their characters, and generally have more success as writers than as parents in controlling the outcome of that decision.  Children will at some stage hate the name you gave them – one of mine wished I had called her Lily, for crying out loud – but your characters have not that luxury: they are the products of our controlling imagination.

In writing the Adeline books, I have had to forgo the pleasure of naming almost all my characters.  Adeline is an exception, along with those she left behind in Scotland, so too are the Sexton and his wife, Donald and Jessie Maindonald, and two bit-players, Emily Yates and Catherine Gorn.  Every other character in the books – every other character, is a real person, or at least, was a real person.  Given that the books are set in 1877, none of the characters in my books still lives, nor does anyone who knew them directly – thank goodness.

There is a subtle difference in herding characters with real names about the pages, as opposed to herding entirely fictitious characters, as Jane Woodham has found.  They have an independence of mind.  They have all the motivation Lynette Noni could ask for, and they are willful.  Each seems determined to have their say, and wrest the story from my grip.  Through their influence, I have come to respect coincidences.

Dr Edward (Dr Edward Hulme) presented himself to me very early on, when I was searching for someone for Adeline to talk to.  Quite frankly, I could not have written a better character than he, nor dared stretch coincidence to encompass all that he was.  The Rev John (Reverend John Williams) also appeared, ready formed, as the natural leader of the Community. Stephen King once commented that writing a story is a process of archeological excavation, and I find myself in complete agreement.  Some days I feel as if I am merely channeling the story of my characters into print.

If, as a writer, you find yourself looking for inspiration, you could do worse than grab to a bunch of names from those long dead, and write their story.  We Kiwis have the Papers Past website to consult; our Aussie neighbours have Trove (Papers Past is immensely superior, but let’s not spat), and there must be similar sites of archived newspapers for those elsewhere.

Ka kite anō, Fiona.

PS.  Alexander Turnbull, above?  Not one of my characters (as yet), but there must be a story there for the finding.

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