HENRY JAMES AND THE TROUBLE WITH NAMES

How do fiction writers name their characters? I’m frankly a bit rubbish at this and tend to change my mind a lot. With my crime novels I finally settled on Sam (‘Samantha’) Falconer as the name of my main character, the Sam coming from Sam Spade and the Falconer from The Maltese Falcon, one of my favourite films.

There can be distinct problems however if the name you give a character in a story titled The Liar is a particularly rare and unusual one. This is how Henry James tried to get himself out of trouble in response to an ‘amiable inquiry’ (I wonder!) by a member of the Capadose family on 13 October 1896:

My dear Sir

You may be very sure that if I’d had the pleasure of meeting a person of your striking name I wouldn’t have used the name, especially for the purpose of the tale you allude to.

It was exactly because I had no personal or private association with it that I felt free to do so. But I am afraid that (in answer to your amiable inquiry) it is late in the day for me to tell you how I came by it.

The Liar was written ten years ago – and I simply don’t remember. 

Fiction-mongers collect proper names, surnames, etc – make notes and lists of any odd or unusual, as handsome or ugly ones they see or hear – in newspapers (columns of births, deaths, marriages, etc) or in directories and signs of shops or elsewhere; fishing out  of these memoranda in time of need the one that strikes them as particularly good for a particular case.

“Capadose” must be in one of my old note-books. I have a dim recollection of having found it originally in the first columns of The Times, where I find almost all the names I store up for my puppets. It was picturesque and rare and so I took possession of it. I wish – if you care at all – that I had applied it to a more exemplary individual! But my romancing Colonel was a charming man, in spite of his little weakness.

I congratulate you on your bearing a name that is at once particularly individualizing and not ungraceful (as so many rare names are).

I am, dear Sir,

Yours very truly

Henry James

The old smoothie. No wonder they called him The Master!

Are there any particular fictional names that you like or dislike?

If you’re a writer do you find it easy to name your characters?

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13 thoughts on “HENRY JAMES AND THE TROUBLE WITH NAMES

  1. I gave my family in Not Always To Plan the surname Dorman, as in dormouse, because the whole notion started with them being emotionally asleep. But names can be a real trip hazard. Sam Falconer sounds so feisty. Call me a name snob but I can’t imagine a PI called Brian. And I’m not sure if I’m ready to entertain the host of phonetically-weird spellings (Kylee, Madyson, etc) unless I was making some kind of point. (Mind you, being called Colin hardly gives me the moral highground – in books it’s the go-to name for the dullard in any warehouse.) I do get weary of literary fiction where the main character is called something weird – always feels a bit try-hard. (Lordy me, who knew I was so opinionated about names – you’ve opened a pandora’s box here!)

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    • Thanks Colin I love the fact you named your family after a dormouse – that’s great and I know what you mean about some weird names being irritating. Then there’s the whole problem of Russian names in Russian literature and the use of patronymics etc that always gets me down!

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  2. I hate naming characters and have a list on my phone that I keep adding to. I watch the credits on TV programmes for any that interest me and I have a baby name book. Both of these are used when it’s time to name a new character. But as the letter states, if asked in the future how I came to a name, I probably would never remember!

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    • Thanks, Rebecca, I watch the credits as well! I used to love the credits of old American black and white films although sometimes those names are a bit too idiosyncratic for modern names. But the range of nationalities in the credits in those films is fantastic. I start off with working names and working titles and then chop and change and change until I’ve driven myself mad with it.

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  3. My favourite name is Dora Flood, the philanthropic proprietor of the Bear Flag Restaurant, the local brothel in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. As a boy I did know a middle aged woman called Dora, and after reading Cannery Row at the age of sixteen she did seem much more exotic to me than maybe she would have liked, had she known.

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  4. Well, for me it’s got to be Gabriel Oak and Ebenezer Scrooge – covering two ends of a particular spectrum!
    I think the trouble with names is that we have so many personal associations with particular names and then there are societal associations and beyond that national ones. It is a multi-layered problem.
    But when you writers get it right, it is very powerful.
    I always thought Sam Falconer was a great name – it suited the character physically as well as emotionally.

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  5. Just reading the book of one of my favourite films of all time, ‘The Runaway Jury’ and in it the central character is Nicholas Easter. Obviously knew this from the film, but it didn’t really register as a great name until I saw it in print – you see what an effect you’re having!

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