What’s in a Name? (part one)

Shakespeare asks, ‘What’s in a name?’ and answers by telling us roses smell sweet whatever they are called. But Tim Winton’s character Rose Pickles out of Cloudstreet is anything but sweet: her character comes fully armed with thorns for most of the story – even though she softens towards the end of the story. The name Rose comes with the complete do-it-yourself kit of connotations, both personal and public: Tokyo Rose has an entirely different ring to Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie, and then there was that girl called Rose I sat next to in high school, who picked her nose and used the underside of the desk as … well, let’s not go there.

And what of the Winton’s Lambs, the godfearing family next door in Cloudstreet, with their two sons Fish and Quick? What magical names. But then Winton’s novel is often given the genre tag ‘magic realism’. Probably one of the best known magic realist texts is One Hundred Years of Solitude with the infamous Colonel Aureliano Buendia, whom Garcia Marquez has begin his fictional journey with the words, ‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad…’ An interesting first line given Colonel Beundia’s unsavoury predicament and that the literal translation of Beundia from Spanish to English is ‘good day’. Winton uses ‘g’day’ a lot in Cloudstreet but I’ve yet to come across a character in an Australian novel named Gidday, although somewhere out there there’s surely room for one. I guess some things simply don’t translate. So how exactly do we as writers go about choosing names and how difficult can it be?

As a writer, if you’re anything like me, finding fictional names can be a little like Oscar Wilde’s attitude to blood-sports – well, my definition of it anyway – the unpronounceable in pursuit of the untenable, because as another author, whose name I forget, once said of the writing process, ‘Just slap your belly up against the desk … and wait for beads of blood to form on your forehead.’ Finding names that are suitable can be a little like that. I tend to dive in and regret my choices later.

But names matter, even in high-end literary fiction: how appropriate to their respective narrative  journeys are the names of Stephen Dedalus from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Scout Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird? And while Humbert Humbert hasn’t passed into the lexicon, Lolita certainly has. A good name may outlast its original context: Orwell’s 1984 and the omniscient character Big Brother is my favourite to date, while the name of Winston Smith, the hero of the novel, may well be forgotten in time.

If you’re writing literary fiction or realism then perhaps names aren’t quite so important. Maybe you can get by with something common-or-garden, something prosaic. But while the reader may be more accepting, the author still has the problem of finding a name that gels with wherever they are taking that character. The average novel requires a couple of days to read; to write one may take years and the author has to live with that character and their name for the entire journey. It should have the ring of truth about it.

The area where naming a character comes into its own is probably genre fiction. If you’re writing parody or satire or humour then pushing the boundaries for the readership with some out-there quirky names is reasonable. There’s the wonderful Captain Major Major in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, who’s doing okay until he’s promoted. A fictional character with the handle Major Major Major is really making a statement in itself. Snowball and Napoleon in Animal Farm are a little less obvious, but only marginally. Then there’s Cold Comfort Farm – sorry, but I appear to be on a bit of an agricultural bender here – a comic novel by Stella Gibbons which parodies D H Lawrence and which has the unforgettable characters of Ada Doom, the matriarch who saw ‘something nasty in the woodshed’, and the handsome Seth Starkadder, who despite his bucolic roots is destined for Hollywood. Add to that location – the village of Howling – and the reader knows exactly what to expect. With humorous and satirical writing the reader allows a certain amount of latitude. Other genres may require a lighter touch and a more subtle approach.

I’ve found the White Pages quite useful for surnames, especially when I’m looking for something unusual that might match a particular character or personality trait. Truth is stranger than fiction and a quick troll through the telephone directory can show just how many unusual names are out there. Having just performed this exercise, I came up with the following without too much difficulty – Dohnt, Hext, Wix, Crizzle, Leach and Renard – all of which are suggestive, either though onomatopoeia, spelling or association, of various human foibles or characteristics. I find this – dare I say it – reference work useful for checking to see if an unusual surname I’ve come up with actually exists. I’m often taken aback as to how close a match I find.

But the danger here might be in making the name too unusual and drawing the reader’s attention to it. It depends on whether you want to foreground the name. Unlike surnames, given names drop in and out of favour and carry historical or generational overtones, so if you’re writing historical fiction or faction it’s important to do a little research. A postwar character by the name of Duane or Dakota lacks authenticity. With children’s and young adult works, fantasy, science-fiction and crime or romance writing names can matter, but it then becomes a trade-off between the startlingly obvious and drawing too much attention away from the narrative flow, unless that is your purpose. A sure–fire way to put a reader off your prose is to use names inappropriately.

To be continued… 

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