All in a Name
Have you ever wondered about the allure of a name? I mean, I have one of the plainest names out there but as a kid (and a little as an adult as well) I liked to console myself with the fact that it’s the name of the world’s greatest spy. Still, the one time I introduced myself as “Beaumont, James Beaumont . . .” well, as you can imagine, it didn’t go down that well. Fleming said of Bond that he wanted to create a character with “the most boring name I could think of” and you have to wonder if the staying power would have been as good if he had opted for something like – I don’t know – Reginald Steelman (hey, that’s not so bad!)
So, what’s in a name? In many ways it’s too subjective a question to answer. We’ll all be drawn to names in different ways because of the multitude of associations they offer both from reality and fiction. That’s not to mention the many other words they might sound like and then there’s the phonology: the weight of the syllables; how the first and last names run together; possible assonances, alliteration and so on. But, rather than quitting before I even give it a go, I’ve decided to choose three character names I’ve found to be endearing (and I thought it best to choose characters that we get very little back-story about) and then to think what it is that attracts me to them.
We have . . .
Fiver (Watership Down): What is it about this name that makes it fit so well? We haven’t got any back-story to our protagonist but you hear the name and immediately the small fragments we have of his personality – his timidity, fragility – when compared to the other rabbits – seem to get entangled into word that is otherwise only ever used when you want to scrounge off a friend (in England, anyway: “Can I borrow a fiver?”). It isn’t a strong sounding word; there are no heavy consonants in the middle just the very light fricative sound of the V. But it’s different and so it simultaneously shows us that this character is different from the others around him. I also think it’s important to consider the name in relation to the surrounding cast: Bigwig, Hazel, Silver – these are more definite sounding and so Fiver immediately gets placed in the background whilst still managing to exert that he is special amidst this number.
Steerpike (Gormenghast) – This novel is a treasure trove of names and I practically used it as a naming manual for a time. Steerpike – why does it work so well? For me I think it seems to conjure an image both unassuming yet rigid; meagre yet strong. This is the heart of Steerpike’s character, he may not look like much but he has a ferocious intellect. He’s also described as being very gaunt and the pike image fits perfectly here.
Manchee (The Knife of Never Letting Go) - Again, the name alone gave me so much and like Watership Down being attributed as it was to an animal, we didn’t have a any real character profiling to work with and so the name really did have to make an impact. Loyalty, a sense of the dog’s scrawny body yet also his ability to be fierce when needed, it was all there for me.
But this leads me nicely onto perhaps the crux of my argument: to what extent does the name reflect on us and to what extent do we merely reflect a character’s attributes back onto the name? I feel this two-way process happens from the very beginning – there are far too many associations in even the most basic of actions for us not to be constantly embroiled in our own character building and so, when you think about it, maybe there really is very little we can say at all about the influence of a good name, only that, ultimately, it has to complement this process – it can’t get in the way. A good name doesn’t necessarily have to shout out to us from its first reading but it has to be able to absorb some of the character attributes we’ve picked up on – particularly their virtues/malformations this character embodies – particularly virtues and malformations. Think Dumbledore/Voldemort, Baggins/Sauron, Pan/Hook, Holmes/Moriarty, Skywalker/Vader.
An interesting direction to look in next would be names that fail in a story. Does anybody have any examples of names that failed them? Characters you’ve absorbed and then couldn’t help thinking, no this just doesn’t work? It’s happened to me plenty of times when writing a character but I feel that’s because in the beginning you don’t tend to know who your character is; I would go so far to say you’ve often not even met them when you start writing them down on the page. It’s only somewhere along that process that you meet them face to face for the first time and sometimes it might happen that in that moment you learn their true name – ahh, of course, it’s not Jeff, it’s Noah (as was the case in one of my stories – and this simple transformation redefined the creative process for this character!)
One final note that has to be mentioned is the obvious leeway you get in the fantasy genre. My three favourite names all come for fantasy or at least fantastical tales and if your goal is realism then of course you’re a little more restricted. Still, think about the power of otherwise plain names, such as “Jay Gatsby”, “James Bond” and “Arthur Dimmsdale”. I’ve tried to include a selection of these plainer forms and names from multiple genres in my word cloud at the top of the page just to illustrate the range that names can give.
As usual, let me know if you have any thoughts.