It’s only a name, surely?

There’s no question that picking a name to give our offspring is a massive decision. But why? It’s only a name isn’t it? Why should we care what their title is? I mean, it’s not as if that decision made there in the hospital delivery suite will affect how the rest of their lives will turn out, is it?

Is it?

I think it is. Or at least, it is in part.

I think somebody’s name can have implications far beyond what they are called.

Picture 2Names are important. They can label us, pigeonhole us, stereotype us, empower us and haunt us. If names really weren’t important, I’d have loved to call our girls something crazy and eccentric like ‘Boudicca’, ‘Calamity Jane’ or ‘Princess Powderkeg’. But we didn’t. Naturally, we gave them both lovely names, but not anything so extreme they’d spend their lives’ accounting for our moment of indulgence.

And so what I want to talk about here (and it is relevant, I promise) is how names can affect our perception of a character – and not only in fiction.

For me there are two ways a name can be linked to character traits: by association or by intention.

Picture 1For example, there are the names we have come to associate with being bad: Adolf Hitler; Joseph Stalin; Saddam Hussein; Count Dracula. There’s not doubt they all instantly conjour up images of pure evil. But is this merely through association? To me, these names are already smacking of evil; they have a certain phoneticism and rhythm to them that could sound dark even if these people were elderly, peace-loving librarians.

So, to take it a touch further, what about  something like Ian Sutcliffe? Ian is a painfully normal name, as is Sutcliffe, but I’ll wager there are very few parents out there who would name their child after the notorious moors murderer.

Then of course you have those names in fiction that are coined before the character even comes to life. The ones that are designed to impart a large nod to their disposition even before the action begins: Darth Vader, Doctor Doolittle, or Flash Gordon, for example.

And then there are the names that I know are tainted by association. Take Margaret Thatcher, for instance. This is a name synonymous with power, an iron fist and a bullish personality. But, previous to the reign of this Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher could easily have been the name of a meek and impressionable young country girl in  a Jane Austin novel.

Not anymore.

Now I’m sure a linguist or onomastist could tell me how names are constructed and the rules explaining why they can be, shall we say, onomatopoeic with a character’s temperament (does that make sense?).

And so for me, and for my novel, names are hugely important.

Yes, I have my little ways of coming up with good names; you may even have read my post on stealing names off gravestones, but that trick was for extras, not main characters.

So – as with my children – I think very carefully about the names of my principle characters.

For instance, my chief badie in the book is called Commander Cornelius Riggs. For me this name has more of an evil ring to it that, say, Commander Bernard Flowers. That has a kind of comedic ring to it, don’t you think? It wouldn’t work for a malicious, conniving snake of a man.

Or would it?

On this subject, I do think there’s something to be said for not being too obvious with a name. If you’re really clever, you can give your character a name that’s not archetypical to his or her personality, but the person then turns out to be utterly the opposite. That works really well for me if done properly (but I’m not going to try it, because I’m not that clever).

Anyway, to reign myself in a bit, my reason for rambling on like this is because I’ve been struggling recently with the name of one my characters. She’s a main character and, for some reason, I had her name in my head before I even conceived her place in the story. Yes I know; that should be a sign that changing her name may be a touch rash. However, I’ve asked my beta readers for their opinion and some do say her name doesn’t fit. More importantly, my wife hates her name and says it’s rubbish.

Picture 3

Her name is Susan Lee, or Suzy Lee for short, which in-of-itself I quite like. What possessed me to give her this name I shall never know, but that’s what she’s been called for the entire first and second drafts. She the hero’s sister, a hero in her own right and her character is a strong-willed, brilliant politician. Given these facets, I still didn’t think her name was that bad. What finally convinced me to change her name (apart from my wife) was firstly, her brothers: They’re called Horatio Lee and Ulysses Lee. It made sense that parents who named their sons in this manner would be a bit more imaginative than just Susan for their daughter. True.

Second, I watched the film Monsters vs Aliens where the blob-thing mockingly says of the hero character, “Ooooo, watch out for Susan.” And that finished off my resolve at keeping this name. I relented and changed it.

So what have I renamed her, you ask? Oh no, no, no. You’ll have to read the book to find that out (it shouldn’t be too long now).

To summarise then: Am I putting too much importance on a name, or can you not put enough importance on naming characters? And now can I please finally move onto some other issue to wake me up at four in the morning? Thank you.

And thanks for reading.

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6 comments on “It’s only a name, surely?

  1. Names are endlessly hard to me, and most of the time it has to be something that just occurs to me right before I fall asleep, or I hear it when I’m out and about. I should probably never have children, because they’d probably end up with multiple names that their slightly neurotic mother will use interchangeably. I also have a bad habit (fostered by my love of comic books) of giving a character a name like “Alexander Arliss” or “Devin Delaney” and so on.

    I also try to give characters names that don’t seem to fit them (like giving the resident badie a name like Flowers, or Justice), but that’s probably just ego and usually ends up getting changed 5 times or better.

    • gpeynon says:

      I think I will go for a non-fitting name soon, but like you say, it can seem like a good idea and then keep getting altered. But that’s no reason not to try, eh?

      And I love the idea of inter-changable names. Brilliant.

  2. I seem to do all right picking out first names and then drive myself crazy trying to come up with the perfect last name. I also have bad luck with the first name of one of my characters popping up in another book in my genre. Then I obsess over whether I need to change the name.

    • gpeynon says:

      Hmmm. Now for me (who just loves quirky) I would be looking at that double name usage as a signature; a bit like Steven King making small cameos in all his films or that old man turning up various Pixar films. It would be great when you’re hugely famous author with thirty bestsellers to your name that literature students are studying your work and talking about (among other things) how in every book you’ve written, there is one particular name that always pops up and is this a message to link all of your books, genres, worlds together, &c. &c.

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