fostering, developing and promoting writers and writing

What’s in a Name? (part two)

By Malcolm Walker

Continued on from this previous post 

…The psychological motivation of characters can also have a bearing when thinking up names. If a particular character is serious or frivolous, sensitive or uncaring, happy or sad, does the name you settle upon reflect or enhance these traits or does it work against the grain? Of course, if done wisely or with flair, such counterpoint can prove interesting. Then there are the ‘good’ characters. In the naming department these are the ones I often struggle with longest. I find the unscrupulous and the downright villainous a lot more entertaining when it comes to Christening rites. From A Christmas Carol, Dickens has given us that wonderful word ‘Scrooge’; purloined in turn by Walt Disney for one of his ducks.  quote

The film critic Roger Ebert said a ‘film is only as good as its villain’, a statement that surely fits as well with novels. Do the bad and the ugly necessarily need names that fit? Tolkien knew his European history when he named Gollum after the Golem of Prague, a creature created and shaped from clay in much the way that the ring moulds Tolkien’s embittered misshapen creature. And Rowling isn’t far behind with her wonderful creation Draco Malfoy, with its connection to the Athenian law-giver, who gave us the word draconian, plus there’s the suggestion of the serpent, while with a slight reshaping his surname can mean mal foi, literally ‘bad faith’ in French.

We live in politically correct times. Enid Blyton’s golliwogs seemed harmless enough in the 40s and 50s but wouldn’t scrape past even the most dubious editor these days. One doubts that Ian Fleming’s character Pussy Galore, even with all of the Bond books’ flagrantly sexist connotations, would make it into print today. Class, ethnicity and indigenous cultures are three tricky areas where the generation of characters’ name should be embarked upon with caution. It’s all too easy to stereotype, and names can add to this.

Then there’s the use of real people’s names, both the dead and the living, although the latter may be fraught with the possibility of a court action. Sometimes, if this is not carefully done or if the context is not immediately apparent, this can look like name-dropping. But with the rise of faction it seems clear that this trend will continue. It’s hard to imagine Mr Darwin’s Shooter without a passing mention of the man himself or Atwood’s eponymous protagonist Grace Marks in Alias Grace? Of course in the case of these two novels the likelihood of the author being sued were nonexistent.

So where else can we find names? Well, there’s always the obituary column which, if your novel is set locally, can provide some excellent possibilities. If you have a dog to walk or a baby in a pusher the local cemetery can be quite useful, in particular it gives dates and shows how names come in and out of fashion. There are plenty of baby name generators on the web, most of which give meanings (although there can be some interesting discrepancies between sites). Some authors like the meaning of the name to reflect either the character or the situation.

To my utmost surprise I found out while researching this article that there are random online name generators. Most are attuned to gamers’ or fantasy writers’ needs but there are one or two that may be useful, although what they produce did appear to be very random. It seems a fairly lazy way of going about things and I couldn’t find an online generator that allowed you to type in a theme or a characteristic. No doubt there’s one out there but by that time my patience had worn thin. Patience – now there’s a name.

While changing a name later isn’t necessarily problematic, it is all too easy to get stuck with an earlier version when you’re writing that next draft. You can think, ‘Oh, it’s just a draft’ but then time passes and your name’s still sitting there. Sometimes one seems all too familiar and it becomes difficult to think past it to something new.

A character’s name, no matter how appropriate or carefully chosen, isn’t going to make up for flimsy writing, bad grammar or poor characterisation. Nor will it rescue you from poor storytelling or clumsy plotting. While naming a fictional character is perhaps not as demanding as naming a child, it still requires some preliminary thought and research; after all it may, if you’re talented or lucky, outlast you the author. And, if you’re like me, you’ll probably still agonise over getting it right. I’m told cold, salted water is quite good for getting blood out of clothing.

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