On Naming Children & Fictional Characters
I can completely understand this.
Names fascinate me. I've always been interested in the origin of names and the way that names evolve, concealing, preserving or celebrating cultural identities. I like the sound of names and the way those sounds conjure up ideas about a person's nature; softness, sharpness, hardness, roundness, grandour, strength, wisdom and frailty. Our arbitrary rules about what makes a feminine or masculine name (which don't apply elsewhere in the world, Peaches). I like the way that people move through different names, diminutives, pet names, formal names, married names, pen and stage names and our ability to change our identity through tweaking or completely changing our names. I like the capacity for the sound of our names to give comfort, arousal, irritation or terror ("They're coming to get you, Barbara..."). In the news, I'm always spotting evidence of nominative determinism; an anatomist called Dr Bone, a bird expect called Prof. Crowe and so forth (I'm sad to report that when I googled the best study I knew into this, I found that it had been debunked - but that only makes it interesting in another way).
So yes, I'm like names.
So if I ever had to name a human being.... well, fictional characters are hard enough. I spend more time on this than you could ever imagine. I was relieved when I saw an interview with Graham Linehan who spoke about how the writing of The IT Crowd was delayed because he couldn't quite decide on what Roy's name should be. And that's the guy who dreamed up Father Ted Crilly.
A fictional character's name, like that of a child, must
1. Coming up with a distinct name sounds simple, but it is much easier when dealing with fictional characters than people. Just within my own family, there are three Michaels, plus pairs of Stephens, Jeans, Christophers and even Rosemarys - none of whom were first born children taking a parent's name. At high school, there were three Elizabeths, three Emmas and two Georginas in a class of just twenty-five girls. Although we cringe (or admire the massive power of fiction*) when we see that Harry and Bella are now among the most popular baby names, the things that influence name choices are usually quite subtle. You may well find the very special name you've chosen for your child is commonplace among her peers, with no clue why so many people chose Pandora this year. (There was a Pandora at school. Everyone got nervous when she opened her packed lunch...)
Yet if you're writing a family or a class of children, you'd be much more careful about repetition. It's probably as hard to write characters with the same name as it is to read about them and keep track. Emily Bronte gets away with it because she kills the original Cathy giving birth to the next Cathy.
It's not just to do with straight repetition - it's terrifically easy to muddle some names, like Mary, Marie and Maria. Personally I still have to look up which evil wizard is Saruman and which is Sauron and it's a good job Arathorn only featured historically, given that his son is Aragorn. At least, his first born - the family don't like to talk about his wayward vegetarian younger brother Araquorn.
2. Memorability should be easier, in theory, if you're writing fantasy or sci-fi or making up a child's name from scratch. But memorability isn't just about being unique. It also helps
War and Peace is the only book where I actually took notes on the characters because I was losing track. Obviously, reading in translation, I can't complain, but I had big problems with diminutives. So for example Pytor or Peter was Petra to his family and Pierre in some contexts. Which would have been manageable if there weren't five thousand other characters I was trying to hold in my head.
I don't know whether to applaud or condemn Dickens for his capacity to come up with memorable names. The trouble is that characters in the Dickens parody Bleak Expectations wouldn't exactly seem out of place if they came up in one of his novels; Pip Bin, Harry Biscuit, Skinflint Parsimonious, Gently Benevolent and so forth. Certainly Dickens displays a love of language in his ability to come up with names that give you information about a character; Mrs Todger, Edward Murdstone, Mr Bumble, Betsy Trotwood, Orlick and perhaps most the explicit, Uriah Heep. But it often feels too much. Mervin Peake and Terry Pratchett do the same kind of thing, but then they're writing in fantastical worlds, with no attempt to persuade the reader that these are people you might meet on the streets of a real city.
Anyway, really simple names, well chosen, can be just as memorable as complex ones; Harry Potter, James Bond or Jim Hawkins, for example. Douglas Adams was great with very simple but memorable names, as well as the sci-fi Zaphod Beetlebrox; Arthur Dent, Dirk Gently, Richard MacDuff and the genius of Ford Prefect, given that Ford Prefect sounds like it ought to be perfectly sensible and ordinary name.
I've also decided there's something about first names with three syllables that benefit a great deal from a monosyllabic last name such as Atticus Finch, Artemis Fowl and Sebastian Flight - such good names!
I'm really struggling to think of female characters in literature who have really fantastic names. Any suggestions?
3. The absence of strong confusing associations should be a no-brainer. Marilyn was not named after Marilyn Monroe, but having grown up in the 50s and 60s, she still imagines that Monroe is the first thing that comes to a person's mind when they hear her name. Any Kylies or Adeles growing up now may come to consider themselves cursed by their famous namesakes.
One of the strangest criticisms of Fifty Shades of Grey is that it is a book all about a woman who doesn't eat unless she is told to, called Ana, and the only female character she likes is called Mia. Ana and Mia (here's the Google results, which come with a serious health warning) are slang terms used by people with anorexia and bulimia, particularly those who support one another's disordered behaviour through on-line community. It seems to me extremely unlikely that the author did this intentionally, but it is jarring and, when intention is suspected, rather sinister.
4. Whilst there is virtue in not making life especially hard for a child, I think it would be fairly unhealthy for parents to consider the social context when coming up with a name. Hopefully, your child will go out into the world and mix with a great number of different people. Name them accordingly.
As it is, I can count on one hand the Deborahs I've had personal contact with (I've met dozens in fiction) and nobody's commented that it is a strange name. I am however, aware that before the early twentieth century, it would be a very unusual name for a British gentile. Same with Ruth, Issac and a few other Old Testament names. (I don't think anyone's been called Nebuchadnezzar since Nebuchadnezzar - apart from the second King Nebuchadnezzar, I suppose, and the name was enough to give him nightmares!)
Here are further considerations:
Part of this issue is around diminutives. I've known parents who name their child Michael or Catherine, but then cringe whenever people address them (or worse, they call themselves) Mike, Mick, Cath or Kate. And of course, different people attract, prefer, tolerate or loathe the diminutives to their name. Parents need to anticipate this and not mind, but writers need to understand how this is going to work for their characters.
There must be a reason that nearly no-one ever calls me Debbie, whereas Rosemary is known as Rosie to everyone who first met her as an adult. I don't know what it is, but if we were fictional characters, our author would need to know. Perhaps we are, and they do! If so, someone needs to work harder on the dialogue - way too many ums and urghs.
People call Gerald Gerry, but at some point he decided that he could no longer tolerate it. He then made the mistake of correcting his son-in-law's innocent mistake (nobody knew Gerry was a problem), with the now infamous words, "That's Gerald, dear boy." Years later, he is still frequently addressed as Gerald Dear Boy by various family members. This little story tells you an awful lot about this character and his family.
When writing fiction, some names come to my head and stick so fast that it would be a terrific wrench to change it. Others take a lot of thought and I can change them several times as I'm going along. Even the names of minor characters can require a great deal of contemplation - with some books, you can read the writer's contempt for their minor characters, being all Johns and Janes, Smiths and Joneses.
But to name an actual human being, who would take that name and wear it for eighty or ninety years? I'd need a lot more than nine months to work that one out.
Of course, some people get to choose their own name, sometimes when they transition, sometimes when they want or urgently need a fresh start for other reasons. In a strange way, I imagine that's easier, but I'd really love to know how it's done. When one close friend told me the secret of their original name, I exclaimed with horror, "But I'm sure you were never a [insert the most unsuitable name imaginable]!"
* I recently met a six year old Merlin. It was difficult not to ask how he felt about his name.