The importance of being Ernest, or Joe

Some characters introduce themselves to you by name. Others you have to christen, and it’s a vitally important job, because the name is by far the most common label your character carries, far more than being dark-haired, brave or devilishly handsome.

The name has to suggest the right kind of personality.

Sometimes the writer or reader carries baggage, remembers a particular person in a certain way, and using their name evokes remembered feelings. It is, for instance, a temptation to name a villain after a person you dislike. I tried it in Parts Unknown, giving a villain the name of my high school principal, but fortunately I walked away from the idea later. Those subjective names aren’t great, because readers don’t share your feelings. They have their own likes and dislikes, of course, but there is nothing the writer can do about it. Best is to pick names with more public associations, so that they might evoke the desired emotion in readers.

I think Siegfried Bock, hero of Parts Unknown, was one of the characters who told me his name straight up. In the earliest story notes I could find, from 2013, his name is there. I liked it from the start.

This is all after the fact – I had chosen the name instinctively – but if I have to analyse it, I’d be able to find reasons why the name worked so well for me. Sieg + fried is German for the victory of peace, which fits nicely with the story. There is Siegfried from the Medieval myth, slayer of dragons. It also has links to my own name, which is a uniquely South African mangling of Siegreich. His surname, Bock (which I probably nabbed from the German field-marshal Fedor von Bock) makes a contrast with the lofty first name, bock being the German for goat. It might also suggest a sacrificial goat.

Mordegai Guruseb is also named in that initial scribble. Mordegai is Biblical, and hence realistic for the time and culture. The first syllable has an echo of death. His surname suggests guru, which isn’t a bad association.

Lisbeth Löwenstein’s surname was taken from someone I knew in my younger days. I wanted something distinctive and Jewish. Her married name, Kamke, was taken from a German tennis professional I’ve seen play. I chose it because it seemed neutral without being bland.

The doctor’s name, Albert Pitzer, was a mangling of Albert Schweitzer and a combative Springbok hooker from my youth, Gys Pitzer. Pit suggests something dark and untoward.

I devised Alvaus Luipert’s name by simply taking the first name of one of a list of historical Swartboois and combining it with the surname of another. Luipert is leopard in Afrikaans (slightly misspelled), so there’s that connection. And the name Alvaus is quite outlandish, suggesting a singular man.

Apart from suggesting personality, names also have to help the reader tell characters apart. If there is something memorable about the name, it can help, especially for minor characters. You don’t want characters to have similar names, especially if they only appear a few times. I even get nervous if names start with the same letters. (I have written elsewhere about how confused I get with some character names in books by the highly rated Australian novelist Philip Temple.)

In writing Parts Unknown, I was taken with the historical fact that there were Finnish missionaries in Namibia at the time, and wanted to use a Finnish name, especially one of those quaint ones with a double i. I considered the surname of an old schoolmate, Wiid. (Annalise, who had success as a gospel singer, sadly died in mid-2018.) Eventually, I settled on the, from a Southern African perspective, more exotic Viitanen. The missionary’s daughter got the name, Isa, of another girl who was a year or so ahead of me at school.

The point is not the origin of these names, but the emotional content they suggest by association or even just their sound. To me, for instance, Adendorff sounds like a more cultured fellow than Grajek.

As a writer, you hope readers will also have these instinctive emotional responses to names, that they will agree that Heidi is more wholesome than Morgana, Norman less confident than Victor, Fred funnier than Benedict. And so on.