ASK DR. BOLI.

Mr. Clay Potts writes:

It seems perhaps that among the greatest challenges in writing (fiction, anyway) is the proper naming of characters – I prefer names that are unique, humorous, but believable – I think Dickens was particularly adept at naming his characters – is there a secret to naming characters without assigning them all tired old monikers such as “Smith, Jones and Wilson”?

The question provoked an answer well worth reading from “Martin the Mess,” who considers all the practical difficulties the novelist faces in the simple act of naming a character.

We should acknowledge at the beginning that the problem of naming characters is not limited to the realm of fiction. Parents, when they give their child a name, are naming a character who will be the hero of his own history, and the name is of more importance than most parents understand. (On this subject Mr. Walter Shandy is the acknowledged authority.) Would Algernon Swinburne have been the blockbuster poet he was if his name had been Vlad “the Impaler” Jimenez? (You will notice that we follow the advice of Martin the Mess in mixing ethnicities.) Would Ethan Allen have been the hero of Ticonderoga if his name had been something prissy and pedantic, like “Benedict Arnold”?

Dickens was indeed the great master of suggestive names. One feels as if one knows the man already when one hears the name “Pecksniff.” Among novelists of our era, J. K. Rowling seems to have absorbed the principles of Dickensian naming more thoroughly than any other living writer. On the other hand, Anthony Trollope occasionally tried his hand at such indicative names and botched the job thoroughly. When we meet a Duke of Omnium or a lawyer named Slow, it takes all Trollope’s prodigious skill in characterization to make us forget the awkwardly one-dimensional name.

The example of Trollope suggests that, perhaps, the tired old monikers are the best. One of Dr. Boli’s own favorites among Trollope’s novels is The Struggles of Brown, Jones, and Robinson, and never were tired old monikers so deftly used: they put us in the thoroughly middle-class commercial world of the novel even before we open the cover. (Dr. Boli understands that this is perhaps no one else’s favorite Trollope novel, but at his age he feels little need to apologize for his peculiar tastes.) There is also the notable advantage that it would be very difficult for someone named Jones to claim that you meant him in particular when you named one of your main characters.