Where Do Character Names Come From?

Often I adapt the names of people I know when I’m writing because they’re already in my memory bank, but I always assumed I got Bryant & May from a matchbox. Both my parents were smokers and there were always Bryant & May boxes lying around.

However, it appears the real Arthur Bryant was a knighted writer (see columns passim) and that he went to my old school, Colfe’s. I discovered that my best friend and business partner Jim Sturgeon came from a huge family of Bryants, but the strangest coincidence emerged when it turned out that my mother’s maiden name was not the one I knew her by at all but…Bryant. So it appears that far from picking a random name, I was genetically predisposed to finding it.

I’m always wary about using complicated or very unusual names (although I did use the first name ‘Brilliant’ in a Bryant & May book because it’s proper Victorian nomenclature and is pretty cool) because you can be sure there’s someone out there who has that name and will complain. Many libel cases of the past hinge on unfortunate coincidences. The writer Jake Arnott fell into this trap when he invented a name for an entertainer, not realising there was a very real and litigious namesake, causing the book to be pulped.

Now that a huge back-body of Victorian and Edwardian work is making its way onto Kindle, we’re being presented with a rich panoply of names. It would be nice to think we could get away from the usual top ten list of UK boys’ and girls’ names, which this year are:

1 Olivia, Harry
2 Lily, Jack
3 Sophie, Oliver
4 Amelia, Charlie
5 Emily, Alfie
6 Jessica, Jacob
7 Grace, Thomas
8 Ava, James
9 Ruby, Riley
10 Mia, Ethan

They’re all pretty vanilla and safe, although I honestly wonder how many parents even realise that they’re using diminutive forms in choosing Harold and Alfred, two very working class Victorian names!

10 comments on “Where Do Character Names Come From?”

  1. Gretta says:

    I note on the packet of matches, the term “Brymay”. Does this mean they’re also responsible for the hideous Bennifer, Brangelina type nicknames? tsk tsk on them, if they are.

    This reverting back to ‘Old Man’ names fascinates me. To that ends, I’m surprised George, Fred, Sid, Ernie and/or Albert haven’t made the list. Curiously, such names have always been popular in the Pacific Islands when boys have been given English names.

  2. Alan Morgan says:

    There’s a lot of older and foreshortened names about in kids nowadays. In my daughters classes there are Mollies*, Jacks, and (as above) a Harry and an Alfie. As given names, not diminiutives of others. My pair are Mab and Rowan (though there is another of this second in the local town, though not with the middle name of Ember). Of Finns and Owens there are sufficient to field football teams.

    Mark Thomas had a radio show recently (Manifesto) whereby he and the audience came up with excellent new laws to add to a faux-manifesto. One of which was ‘Parents who give their children silly names shall when their children come of age have their own names changed by them in turn’. My favourite of them all was ‘Demonise spoons, so as to cut down on knife crime amongst the urban youth’.

    *As in the name Molly. Not 18C gentlemen given to cross-dressing, or birthing brushes, nor producing taut and original crime fiction. ;0)

  3. Helen Martin says:

    My father-in-law’s name was Harry and he was born in 1910 in Newfoundland. His middle name was Guy, after Sir John Guy, who started the first permanent settlement there. My mother-in-law, born in Northern Ireland, was Annie Bella. Boy’s names tend to remain fairly steady because so many are named for fathers, grandfathers or other male relatives. Girls often got fancier names so they would have something nice to keep even after they married. My mother (1912) was Florence Mary, and her sisters were Elsie Winnifred and Mable (don’t remember her middle one) and those sound like real working class names to me. Mother would never let people shorten hers, except for ‘Flo’. All the other versions were cows according to her. Since they had cows you can imagine how that would feel.
    Alan, did you mean ‘bathing’ brushes? and we have a cleaning firm called “Mollie Maid”.

  4. Amy says:

    It’s interesting how sometimes we think we’re choosing something and it turns out that it chose us. I was actually thinking about just this topic the other day. In Toni Morrison’s book, Beloved, the character that saves Sethe is named Amy, which means beloved. I’ve never done the research to find this out, but I wonder if that naming was intentional. If it was unintentional, it’s really odd that she would use that name for the girl who resurrected her character’s feet and her resurrected baby.

  5. Alan Morgan says:

    Helen – nope. Molly Houses were 18C London gay clubs. Mother Claps perhaps the most famous. There were meant to be games where gents dressed in women’s clothing (Mollies) gave birth to brushes and other household objects, all whilst doubtless pissed and having enormous fun doing it.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Alan, I am constantly amazed at the things people have gotten up to. It’s usually men, though. Women must have had their fun in daylight at home with friends – which doesn’t mean innocent, but does mean very secretive. I can imagine the laughter involved in those molly games.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Would “Brymay” be the telegraph address?

  8. Alan Morgan says:

    Well, tragically some were hung at Tyburn. It could be a capital crime back then, awful as it is to say.

  9. Connor says:

    I work in a stationery warehouse, and one of the staplers made by Rexel has me convinced that it is the source of inspiration for a J.K. Rowling character. The box boldly declares the model name: Sirius. And in slightly smaller capitals, but still larger than the other text on the box, it announces the colour of the plastic shell: Black.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Not telegraph address but cable address.

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