I asked children’s author, Elizabeth Arnold, if she’d be happy to write a little something for my website on how she chose names for her characters. Liz replied in depth and with great insight so I’ve created this extra web page so you can read her thoughts in full. Thank you, Liz.
Elizabeth Arnold discusses the naming of characters
Choosing a name for a character is, in my opinion, one of the hardest things to do. We all hold name associations deep within our psyche, people we loved, people we hated. Names associated with certain jobs, certain characteristics, and different times in our lives. Each one of us sees the world differently, makes different judgments.
Any parent is likely to recall the hours spent choosing a name for a child. A name they will love or hate forever. In giving the child a name, we subconsciously assume or give that named person our hopes and dreams; we secretly define a nature we hope that child will achieve. As a writer, when we give a name to a character, we make bolder more open character associations. We hope others are led to our point of view by the mere speaking of a name.
I was reminded of the seriousness of the naming of a child when I named Freya in The Parsley Parcel, the first of The Gypsy Girl Trilogy. Freya was a Romany child, and in ancient Romany culture a child had three names. A formal name; a pet or nickname, and a secret name. The secret name is whispered by a mother to her child only twice; at the moment of birth and once more when the child is old enough to remember. I wonder if this is a bonding name?
While thinking about the name for my Romany character, I remembered a writers’ circle meeting a long time ago. There, a very old lady told us how she got her name…a name that she both hated and treasured.
The old lady’s mother was called Phyllis. When she gave birth to her baby girl, the child was expected to die. As was the tradition in that place and that time, the doctor put the baby in a box and advised them to just let her die, as she was weak and sickly. When the doctor had gone, Phyllis took her baby and held it close. She had nothing to give that baby but a name, her name, part of her, a name they would share whatever happened. Against expectations, the baby Phyllis thrived to become the old lady at the writers’ circle. Although she hated her name, Phyllis, she also cherished it because she understood the love and power in its giving.
So, I thought deeply about the name I would choose for my Romany girl. Finally, I chose Freya as my heroine’s formal name. Freya, named after the goddess Freya born on Friday. This was important because in The Parsley Parcel, special magic would be worked on Good Friday. Her pet name was Chime. Why? Because she was a Chime-Child, a gypsy girl born with special powers to work special enchantments. Her secret name? It’s a secret, of course, that she and I will share forever.
Freya was a magical child with magical powers and language, her best friend, and down to earth mentor, was a gorgio or non-gypsy. I called her Mary. Why? Mary is a simple name, one usually associated with a loving person with a simple honest and open personality. My Mary had these characteristics too.
Sometimes names come easier, as in The Gold-Spectre published by A&C Black (ISBN 0-7136-6655-2). This is an historical story based on the Kildonan Gold Rush. Joe is a city boy, modern and from Oxford. He meets up with Robbie, Scottish, from another place, another time. I wanted simple names that would fit in with both locations and dates. Normal names, normal boys, whatever the situation.
Recently I’ve edited a book, Soul-Fire (ISBN 1-904529-18-6). It’s a collection of stories written by children, for children. I was amazed at how carefully the character names were chosen, and some of these young writers were as young as eight years old. Wizards had incredible names; fairies were named after flowers or delicate things. Ordinary children had simple names like Emma, Harry, Joe and Alex. Sci-fi characters were more exotic, Kia was one, and there were historical names, like Corus. I was impressed, and became even more convinced that the importance of names lies deep within us. That is why we choose with such fear, and such care.
~ Elizabeth Arnold, 2006
The first edition of The Parsley Parcel was shortlisted
for the Whitbread Children’s Award. A new edition is published 2006, ISBN 1-904529-22-4
To visit Elizabeth Arnold’s web site go to Links