One of the perennial writing questions is what comes first, characters or plot? It’s supposed to define whether you’re a character driven novelist or a story-teller whose characters fit the story. I haven’t got a clue what I am, sometimes I get a plot idea first, sometimes a personality leaps out at me; most times it’s a combination of both plot and characters but it doesn’t matter how strong my idea is, unless I know what they are called I can’t go on.
I have an idea – character based this time – which has been rolling around in my psyche for over four years but I can’t write it because I can’t find my main character’s name. So far she’s been Jane, Jo, Josie and Louise – trying to get away from the Js there – but the impetus always peters out after a few thousand words because I feel as if I’m writing about someone anonymous. Once I know what she’s called, I’ll know what she looks like, what she likes to read, whether she’s allergic to cats, if she’s keen on shopping and if she’s an adventurous cook. I doubt any of that will play a part in the story but never mind. However she’s still concealing her name and until I find it – it’ll probably be something highly unlikely like Madeleine or Pandora (maybe not) – her story is going to be untold.
I had no problems with the main character in my current book, she was Hebe, no question about it, she had named herself before I even knew that her name was perfect for the plot. The story is set in France so as well as finding fitting names for my characters, they had to be easy to read on the page and preferably obviously French so I don’t have to keep on reminding my readers who’s French and who’s English. So Christophe, Hervé, Alain, Cécile, Elodie, Virginie are possible, and Theophane, Thierry, Jordi, Thais, Taous, Berengere – which are all names on the popularity list for French children born in 2001 – are best avoided on the grounds that they’re both difficult to pronounce and sometimes hard to tell what sex they apply to.
There’s a wonderful site which list every name given to a child born in France since the 19th century with statistics for how popular that name was in any given year and also lists every surname in France in order of popularity. So if you need a really basic generic name for a forty-year old you can have Sebastien – the most popular boy’s name in 1980 – Martin – the most common French surname by far.
The other great source for finding names in use today are the “carnet de jour”s in the papers. French death announcements will often list all the relations – children, in-laws, grand and great-grandchildren, uncles, aunts and cousins – so a ninety year old from a populous family can have a hundred or more relatives listed by name. Birth notices can take up a fair amount of space too, it seems to be a French tradition for grandparents to make (and I suspect pay for ) birth announcements, and the thrifty ones will frequently group a parcel of new grandchildren together, not minding at all that the eldest can sometimes be as old as two before he or she finally gets a name in the paper.
My absolute favourite came from the Saturday edition of The Figaro, which is a fairly posh paper so some of the surnames go on for ever. Under the births section the Comtesse de somebody de la something else had the happiness of announcing the births of her 39th, 40th, 41st, 42nd and 43rd greatgrandchildren – names duly followed – and the hundredth birthday of her husband the Comte.
I bet that was some birthday party.