Friday, September 12, 2008

Names

(okay, the world didn't end. But they're still firing it up)

So, this morning my mum read in the paper that Clarissa Dickson Wright's full name is Clarissa Theresa Philomena Aileen Mary Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmerelda Dickson Wright, which, quite apart from almost being child abuse, must take her forever to initial clauses and correct cheques. The other week I read that Dido's full name is Dido Florian Cloud de Bounevialle O'Malley Armstrong (at least, being a Christmas Day baby, she was spared the cliche of Noelle). And I recalled reading in Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue about a WWI army major labouring under the almost endless name of (take a deep breath) Leone Sextus Denys Oswolf Fraduati (it gets better) Tollemache-Tollemache-de (still here? keep breathing) Orellana-Plantaganet-Tollemache-Tollemache.

Quite apart from the breathtaking madness of four uses of the same name, I think it's Denys coupled with Fraduati that really gets me. Denys: the guy who sold you your third-hand car. Fraduati: a bohemian artist from Florence.

So, naturally, it got me thinking about character names. My own name, in full, has twenty-one letters and seven syllables (most of which come from my middle name, Elizabeth, without which I've a paltry eleven letters and three common sylables). When I was little, I used to hate being called Kate, very boring and pedestrian, not even Katherine. I preferred Elizabeth. You could be a princess with a name like Elizabeth (I always wanted to be a princess. It was the clothes, you see). There was never a Princess Kate (although give Wills and Kate a few years and we'll see). Now I quite like it, not least because it's easy to spell and people can usually pronounce it correctly.

My characters have to have names that reflect them. Sometimes it happens accidentally, as with Sophie (who was originally called Sally). I gave her the surname Green because I wanted her name to be entirely ordinary (much as Fleming gave James Bond an ordinary name). Later I realised it describes her fledgeling status perfectly. Luke Sharpe, on the other hand, I named purposefully: he's all acute angles and biting wit. He's smart, he's quick, he's a great shot. He is, basically, sharp.

Plus there's a minor pun in his name, or at least there is if you can do a northern accent.

I named Major Harker because I wanted a name that was, again, hard and sharp, but a little less refined, a bit rougher. Harker is a harsh sound, it's unpleasant to say and sounds like it's being barked out--well, he is a military man. He's an officer by virtue of hard work and promotion, not class and commission. His name also has a more literal sense: I ended up cutting a scene in which his 2ic explains that Harker, while never reading memos, always knows what's going on because he has his ear to the ground.

Striker took ages to name. I remember sitting there with my massive thesaurus and a pad of paper, trying to find the right name. I looked up all sort of synonyms for hard, cutting, cruel, harsh--those sorts of names. His love-rival I named Tanner--a warm name, like summer sun or supple leather. Incidentally, I gave them both nicknames or surnames--their real names are Captain Leander Tanner (nearly always addressed by his rank and/or surname; he does Not Like being called Leander) and Ganymedes Lorek (a person Striker stopped being many years ago).

Chance and Dark came, fully-formed, with their names. I can't imagine them being called anything else. Chance is a person who isn't supposed to exist, who's only there in one out of thousands or millions of realities. Dark is someone with a lot of demons inside him. I gave him a proper name, but it didn't seem like it belonged to him.

For me the names have to suit the characters, but also the universe they inhabit. Since I don't write historicals, I don't have to worry so much about accuracy, but even a contemporary character has to have a name that matches their age and social background. You wouldn't have an aging society lady named Chantelle, any more than a modern teenager would be called Doris. For my fantasy characters, I like to have a bit more fun, and sometimes make up names or use obscure ones--although what's obscure to me might be very ordinary to someone else.

Then again, you can have fun with names anywhere. I named Harker's sister-in-law Tallulah Watling-Coburg just because I felt like giving her a silly name (and I felt she could cope with it). Sophie's shadowy associate is called Macbeth, and no one ever finds out his real name (I don't even know it). In The Book That's Still Being Ignored the heroine is called Lolita Muffy, usually shortened to Loli. That was mostly me being silly, but the tone of the book is very light and fun (and it affords the hero, no slouch himself with the name Benedick, plenty of opportunities to playfully tease her).

What are your favourites? Are there names you just can't stand for characters, and why? Do you have favourites? (I keep naming characters Jack and Will, please stop me.)

But the day I in all seriousness call a character Reighnbeaux, feel free to shoot me.

6 comments:

  1. I am also middle-named Elizabeth.

    My characters usually name themselves, too. My last heroine needed to be called Philomena Desdemona Brown, and I had to figure out afterwards why. And then she demanded to be nicknamed Fil, not the more logical Phil. I still haven't quite figured that one out.

    I was naming a character when I surfed here for distraction, and your post has helped me. She's Evangeline Bonneville. Thanks!

    I have a feeling I know why you chose your pen name...

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  2. Oh and my current heroine wanted to be called Nina Barkham. But then I had to pitch a title, and I flippantly said "Nina Jones and the Temple of Gloom".

    So now she's Nina Jones and I find myself having to invent Welsh relatives.

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  3. My pen name? Has absolutely nothing to do with the James Marsters poster above my desk, and you can't prove it does.

    Or the Cat part, which is so what I'd have been called if I was allowed to choose.

    Evangeline Bonneville sounds like the sort of girl who'd enjoy wearing lace. Is she?

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  4. My daughter is Elisabeth-with-an-s. Except now she's Lizzie. Which makes sense how?

    Character names are one of my Big Things. They matter enormously. When I write short stories (which are, like, word-restricted) you can cut out great chunks of description just by getting the names right. It used to drive me up the wall when one particular editor kept on changing, say, Joe to Alan "because we're already printing a story with a Joe in in this issue". I did actually send a snarling email after one too many glasses of wine saying, "Well change theirs, dammit. I sweated blood for a whole day to get that name right!"

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  5. PS - Julie - I love Nina Jones and the Temple of Gloom!

    And we're not all Welsh.

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  6. One of the right wings who plays for the Calgary Flames is named Jarome Arthur-Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis Iginla.

    Yes....Elvis.

    It could always be worse.

    nK

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