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?