What's in a name?

14 Feb 2021

Names are an important feature of any story, long or short. Some names are brilliantly chosen and stick in the memory long after the details of the story itself have been forgotten. Sheridan’s Mrs Malaprop, Shelly’s Frankenstein, Doyle’s Holmes, Dickens’s Scrooge, Bronte’s Heathcliff, Wodehouse’s Jeeves, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter are names widely known by most people whether or not they’ve read any works in which they appear. Ian Rankin chose well with Inspector Rebus (a crime solver named for a type of puzzle). Ian Fleming was the king of the double entendre when naming his Bond ‘girls’: Pussy Galore, Honey Ryder, Plenty O’Toole, Mary Goodnight, names that were curiously out of character in his otherwise serious novels. The central character of James Clavell’s novel King Rat couldn’t be better named. Corporal King truly is a king rat; he profits at the expense of his fellow prisoners in the Changi POW camp at the tail end of World War II, and is left at the end of the novel being sent home in disgrace to face trial. Joseph Heller’s World War II profiteer in Catch 22 is the brilliantly named Milo Minderbinder. Attempting to contemplate some of his antics really does bind your mind. He manages to persuade everyone to invest with him (including the Germans); he starts off with relatively small deals: he buys eggs for his unit for 8c each, then sells them to other units for 6c each, and somehow still makes a profit; by the end of the war, in perhaps his most audacious business transaction, he contracts out a German bombing raid of American supplies to his own American bombing unit; a task that they do superbly, with no loss of life to either side, which of course shortens supply and thereby increases profit potential for Minderbinder Enterprises. Jasper Fforde’s novels are peopled with an army of well-named characters: Landen Park-Laine, Harris Tweed, Millon de Floss, Red Herring, and of course, the Cheshire Cat, who, due to boundary changes, is referred to as the Unitary Authority of Warrington Cat. Our favourite Jasper Fforde name though appears in the first of his Nursery Crimes novels, and is the name of an institution, not a person, St Cerebellum’s; a great name for a psychiatric hospital! Jasper Fforde is so well known for his love of word play and whacky naming that the annual fan conference that meets in Swindon (the epicentre of Fforde’s fictional universe) is called the Fforde Ffiesta. In our Decamots, names do often have a habit of being recycled, so where the same name crops up in two stories, they’re not necessarily the same person. For example, Jake Gaston crops up a few times, but always as a different character; but the Willem Schmidt and Erik Friedheimer, who appear in A Tale of One City, German Graffiti, and The Wall, are the same characters in all three. Other names have been selected very carefully for their character’s role in a particular story, for example, Milo Dimas in The Wishing Well TV screenplay. As we’ve worked with the students on our creative writing pilots, we have found that they typically are led by people they like or admire for the protagonists, and people they’ve come across and dislike end up as the agonists. Pity the Instagram follower they recently blocked, they could well end up lending their name to a murderer, cheat or, worse, teacher! A few have been more less ‘mainstream’ in their choice of name, with one student naming their main character Rodriges, although his own family history perhaps influenced this decision. Whatever the reason, choosing this name helped to open up a whole back-story and character nuances that might have otherwise been more challenging to identify.   Top tips for naming characters - Make sure they’re pronounceable. After page two, you don’t want to still be struggling to work out how to say the name of a key character. Even in a sci-fi setting. - Are they appropriate to the age of the character – for example, ‘Tracy’ increased in popularity after Grace Kelly played the role of Tracy Lord in High Society, but before 1956 it was little used - Are they appropriate to the character’s place of birth? Until 1993, French babies had to be named using a listed of authorised options which greatly restricted the choices. - Maintain naming styles for siblings, but that doesn’t have to follow the names of the parents. Parents called Michael and Linda could choose to have children called Skye, Ocean and Hunter but are less likely to call their children Skye, Ocean and John. - Give key characters some independence – don’t give them the same initials or similar sounds as it confuses the audience

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