Learning to Name Characters from Dickens

Nev March, author of "Murder in Old Bombay," uncovers what goes into naming the characters in her books and how the process is inspired by Charles Dickens. 

Nev March, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #797

“How do you choose their names?” a young writer recently asked me, referring to the host of characters populating my historical novel "Murder in Old Bombay," to be published shortly by Macmillan Publishers. That got me thinking about names.

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Names are powerful! They contain the seed of the character’s personality, the time and place, their ancestry, and even how they see themselves.

Recall Dickens’ infamous character Uriah Heep? “Humble we are, and humble we shall always be!” he’d say, rubbing his hands. What a vivid impression of falsehood! We know he’s pretending to modesty because both his body language and his very name elicit suspicion. Names are subtle signposts.

In my current manuscript I had named a character Blake Baldwin. He’s an operative, a detective who is killed when he uncovered an anarchist plot. But something about his presence just didn’t work, until I realized the anachronism! Blake is a rather modern name—and my book is set in 1893! Renaming him Arnold Baldwin allowed him to fit into the scenes much better.

Names also direct us to a character’s ancestry and ethnicity. In "Murder in Old Bombay," a young rascal called Birju (a Hindu name) was a pivotal minor character from a mountain village near Pathankot in northern India. Readers may not know that in 1947, when British India was partitioned into India and Pakistan, border villages with predominantly Hindu populations remained with India and those which had mostly Muslim populations were given over to Pakistan. Pathankot stayed in India.

I wanted a racial balance in the book—representing positive characters in all religions, all races, all cultures. To paint one group as villainous exacerbates preexisting prejudices, and that should be contrary to a writer’s role.

Now here’s the problem. In the 1890s, the period in which my book is set, Hindus and Muslims co-existed amicably in villages, so while I wanted to show Birju’s family was Hindu, much of the village life reflects a rural Muslim culture. However, when we sent out electronic copies of my book, an early reviewer complained that it was strange that Birju, a Hindu boy, came from such a village. Her perceptions had been colored by the present-day greater segregation of communities. Since I wanted to retain the quiet, understated nature of the Muslim village, I renamed my character Razak, since the name Birju was jarring in the context of the Muslim village. I specifically did NOT want to change the village, adding temples and traditions to replace the Muslim ambiance, because I wanted a racial balance in the book—representing positive characters in all religions, all races, all cultures. To paint one group as villainous exacerbates pre-existing prejudices, and that should be contrary to a writer’s role.

And it’s just plain lazy writing. Writers should be able to create multi-dimensional characters whose innate desires and beliefs engender admiration or distrust. Charles Dickens, regarded as the foremost Victorian writer, wrote 15 novels, five novellas and hundreds of short stories. He often used names as code to signal a character’s innate predisposition. Nicholas Nickleby, for example—the alliteration in his name creates a focus on wealth and sure enough he’s trying to repair his father’s depleted fortunes. It’s an active name, a robust name for a young man, and certainly this Dickensian hero does much to oppose oppression against Madeline Bray, who he later marries and poor Smike. Smike! Was there ever such a vivid name? He is struck and mistreated and abandoned for years before Nicholas arrives on scene. He travels with Nicholas and works in Crummles stage troupe. Crummles? Do you see how that is an unexploded bomb of a name?

Names are subtle signposts.

We all know Scrooge, whose name is now synonymous with miserliness. But what of Seth Pecksniff? The Charles Dickens Page website shares this extract: “Some people likened him to a direction-post, which is always telling the way to a place, and never goes there … So did his manner, which was soft and oily. In a word, even his plain black suit, and state of widower, and dangling double eye-glass, all tended to the same purpose, and cried aloud, 'Behold the moral Pecksniff!'”

Now David Copperfield! What a sturdy, active name, a name to strive to be worthy of. And indeed this lad’s life is full of strife, yet he valiantly sets forth in search of happiness with the doomed Dora, daughter of Francis Spenlow, his employer. Dora—sounds adorable. Here’s David Copperfield speaking of her. “She was more than human to me. She was a Fairy, a Sylph, I don't know what she was … I was swallowed up in an abyss of love in an instant. There was no pausing on the brink; no looking down, or looking back; I was gone, headlong, before I had sense to say a word to her.” Yet Dora is frail and messes up her house-keeping. She dies young, of an unnamed illness.

Copperfield, Spenlow, Pecksniff, Crummles, Dora! These names don’t hide behind a first impression, they dominate. Their sound, their thrust describes their drama. 

For "Murder in Old Bombay" I invented a detective called Captain James Agnihotri. His very name is a contradiction: James is the quintessential English name, while Agnihotri is not just Indian, but a Hindu Brahmin name, a name that belongs in temples.

But Indians did not approve the mixing of races any more than the British, so Captain Jim faces discrimination wherever he goes. That’s until he realizes his unique gift: to blend in, inside both worlds—society ballrooms and dusty villages—as he decides to channel his hero Sherlock Holmes and disguise himself.

His name was carefully chosen with a view to my second book: in it, Captain James travels to America. Onboard, the office in charge of the manifest mis-hears his name, entering it as James Agney O’Trey. What an opportunity for a sleuth to further reinvent himself, as many immigrants actually did. As Captain Jim’s journey evolves, so does his name. Charles Dickens might even have approved.

About the Author

Nev March, Writing for Grammar Girl

Nev March is the winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award. Leaving a long career in business analysis in 2015 she returned to her passion, writing fiction. She teaches creative writing at Rutgers Osher Institute, and is an active member of the Mystery Writers of America. A Parsi Zoroastrian herself, Nev lives in New Jersey with her husband and sons. Murder in Old Bombay is her debut novel.