Insert Relevant Quote Here
I had to fight myself not to title this post “What’s In A Name.” It’s the obvious title, after all: I want to talk about names and why they matter, and that’s all right there, in the quote, like an A level essay question: “What’s in a name: discuss.” Any time you look for an article about names, or a list of quotes about names, or pretty much anything to do with naming in the English language, you’re bound to find that blessed quote somewhere. But I didn’t want to use it because a title is, in its own way, a name, and I wanted my blog post to have a name that was, if not unique, then at least a little different from all the others. I know: that’s the sort of logic that leads to parents naming their innocent newborn baby Susan with three Ys and a G, and in this case lead to me having a far less catchy and relevant title for the post than if I’d just gone with “What’s in a name?” But names are important: they tell us things about the people they’re attached to; they set our expectations, even if those expectations are wrong; they create images in the mind before we’ve even set eyes on the person they belong to. Juliet continues that quote: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” to which J.B.S. Haldane’s My Friend Mr Leaky retorts “Not if it were called the Lesser Stinkwort…” I think he’s right: just as the first bite of food is with the eyes, so the first sense of character is often with the name.
Even when a character has been introduced and described already, their name can help to fix them in the mind. Take Norman Poltwhistle, my eponymous* Vicar Man.
The names for most of my characters had been fairly straightforward: there’s a sort of stable of names - plain, friendly, sensible names - that tend to be used for background characters in historical fiction, so Dora, Molly, Tom et al drew their names from that. Other names were created in parody of characters from other books, or films, or drawn from history, or simply chosen because they sounded right at the time. Norman’s was trickier. I wanted a name that was as thoroughly unromantic as it was possible to be. For quite a while I thought of him as Gavin, a name that, to me at least, had definite undertones of unromance. Imagine my horror when I learned that, to some people, the name Gavin is actually considered sexy. I might as well have had him wandering through my tale as Alessandro which - according to my entirely unscientific research in an online copy of “Closer” magazine - is apparently the sexiest name available for a man. No, Gavin wouldn’t do. I went back to the drawing board.
Word processor. Laptop. You know what I mean. I understood exactly the kind of name that I needed. One that, while theoretically suitable for a man of his time and class, was also roundly unromantic and unpretentious: a sort of reverse Tarquin, if you will. I knew the shape of the thing, the qualities I needed to express, the sorts of things it should and shouldn’t be. I knew everything, in fact, except what the ruddy name ruddy well was. In desperation I asked the Internet.
The Internet was less than helpful. I got some good ideas for other character names - some of which I later used - but it turned out that all of my friends had completely different ideas of what constituted an unromantic name.
At this point I could have concluded that, since everyone has a different idea of what makes a name unromantic, I could call my vicar anything I liked and get more or less the same effect. But I didn’t want that: I wanted to find the one, definitive name that summed up the character in my mind. I continued to struggle, fighting through books and lists of names, searching for The One until the letters blurred into an impossible jumble of loops and lines. It seemed a momentous task, unsurmountable, a challenge like none I had ever faced before. Naming my own children hadn’t been half as hard. Eventually I gave up: the search for the perfect character name was eating up too much of my writing time. I resolved to do what I always do when I’m stuck for a phrase: stick a set of square brackets in its place, move on, and fill in the blank later. Thus emboldened I attacked my text once more. The tale moved on, the characters met, Dora affirmed her own name, and then: “…ah, Norman. Norman Poltwhistle. Reverend. The Reverend, that is.” And there it was. The perfect name. Surname and all. Dropped into my lap like Newton’s apple. Shape and sound and sense of it all complete. It seemed as though the character had known it all along. That being the case, he could have let me know a little sooner.
Names continue to delight and distress me in equal measure. I took an unreasonable amount of joy in naming the villain of my current work, The Wolf-finder General, Randall. It made me giggle just to think of it. It was silly, but the name suited him, so the fact that I could include a reference to a favourite 1960s supernatural detective show was just an amusing little bonus. Then I remembered that the Witchfinder General was called Matthew Hopkins, not Hopkirk, and I sulked for a week. But I also found out that Randall means “Shield Wolf” so now he’s stuck with it.
*Eponymous would have been a good name for him, really: something about the length of the word, or the flow of the syllables, or perhaps just the “mous” at the end suits the kind of person I had envisioned. He is a trifle mousy in his behaviour, after all. Of course “eponymous” isn’t a name: it’s just a word that means someone gave their name to something, but it still sounds as though it would be a good name for him. It has the qualities I wanted to express, that certain something that conjures the image of the man, a sense of the person it might have belonged to even while meaning nothing of the sort. A kind of onamatopoeisn’t, I suppose.