Friday, November 30, 2012

On Naming Children & Fictional Characters

Sophie and I were both worried about the baby with no name.
(An unhappy looking white woman and baby niece.)
My sister was telling me about a very indecisive couple she knows.  They had a baby and announced its birth, explaining that they hadn't come up with a name yet.  In the UK, you're legally obliged to register a birth within four weeks.  At three weeks and six days, they finally made their minds up. Or at least, kind of - the child now has two forenames, the father refers to her by her first name and the mother by her second.

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. Be distinct from the names of other characters (or in the case of babies, nearby children) 
  2. Be memorable enough in its own right
  3. Not have any strong unintentional association with a famous person or fictional character.
  4. Fit in naturally with the context of their life (not really applicable to babies) and 
  5. Just feel right.
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. 

I soon cheered up but Sophie had needed to think about it.
(A happier woman with uncertain baby niece.)
When my sister and brother in law were thinking of names for their children, they pretty much ruled out the names of anyone they knew well. They even ruled out my favourite, Phillipa, because they know a man called Philip. Some excuse...

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
  • If a name can be easily spelled. 
  • If a name is easily pronounced.  It really matters.  Sometimes it's not possible, if you're writing in English about a non-English culture.  But it is much harder to hold a name in your head if you can't imagine what it sounds like.
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.

After a while, we were both feeling better.
(Same happy woman and equally happy baby).
Everything about social context is fluid and riddled with exceptions. My parents say that if I had been a boy, I would have been called Desmond, after my grandfather. I have never known another Desmond and all the famous Desmonds I can think of are much older than me and black.  However, I could have been called Desmond, got along just fine and I'm not sure anyone would have considered it that remarkable.

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:
  • Socio-Economic Class.  Names that don't sit with the class origins of a character jar a lot with me, because they suggest ignorance - for example, when a upper middle class writer has got a Tarquin selling drugs from the council flat he grew up in.  He probably carries them around in a Waitrose carrier bag. However, these trends change very quickly. When I was a kid, Milo was a posh name, then there was a character Milo on kids TV and there are now many young boys called Milo from many different backgrounds. Similarly, I should imagine there are far more British working class Gileses, Cordelias and Xanders around now whose parents enjoyed Buffy The Vampire Slayer. There was a girl at my school called Bali, who would loudly proclaim that this was Bali with an L I (not to be confused with Barley) because that was where she was conceived. I imagine her folks had to be fairly wealthy, whereas these days far more people can afford to travel and use their children's names to commemorate the sex they have had in exotic locations. 
  • Age. There is a slightly ridiculous article on the BBC website about baby names which were unlikely to be rehabilitated called In search of a baby called Derek (which of course resulted in such a response from Dereks and their parents that they had to publish a whole page of them) which, although being a little wide of the mark, does make the point about naming, fashion and the course of time. Although, few names completely disappear (except possibly Adolf), there were very few Dillons about before The Magic Roundabout and (contrary to a terrible film I saw last week), you didn't get many Gavins in ancient Rome. 
  • Religion.  Most British Catholic families I know, even now, stick to Saints names (there's an awful lot of them). Many Muslims and Jews, regardless of where they or their families come from, choose Arabic and Hebrew names respectively. Although this doesn't apply to everyone, by any means, it is a factor to bear in mind. 
  • Cultural Heritage and Naturalisation. One is as important as the other - some immigrant groups will take British names - sometimes even changing existing first and surnames - while others will hold onto tradition. Then, generations down the line, some will revert to traditional names and others will choose British names instead. Which is partly to say that there are no hard and fast rules, but these are things which would be very useful to know about your characters and their background.  Also, if you're writing a story based on a spaceship in the year 3012, with a predominantly white crew with names like Cobalt and Squee, you need to think about why your token Asian guy might be called Rajendra. Also, the white thing.
  • Sexuality. This is entirely in the negative - believe it or not, a person's sexuality does not influence what their parents name them at birth. Some girl's names are butch and some boy's names are rather camp, for whatever reason (Round The Horn did for Julian and Sandy forever), but gay people are no more likely possess them than anyone else. Radclyffe Hall (originally Margaret) had the heroine of Well of Loneliness christened Stephen because her parents wanted their child to be a boy. I mean, I know it was a different time and Hall had never listened to Lady Gaga's Born This Way, but you'd think she'd have realised from personal experience that Stephen would have been into girls even if she'd been called Stephanie.
Sophie was very pleased once we'd sorted this business of
naming people out. (a very smiley white baby)
5. It's got to feel right. My sister and brother-in-law had firm ideas for names for their children, but didn't tell anyone before they were born, just in case the babies came out looking like someone else entirely. Sophie looks like a Sophie, but she might have come out looking like a Wendoline or even a Rover.

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.


Matthew Smith said...

When I was a child my grandad often used to call me "Matthew with your tongue out", and I never really asked why, but I once heard my Mum explain because someone else asked -- it was because he had been pronouncing my name "Mat-yoo" until my older cousin corrected him, "Math-yoo, with your tongue out!". The name stuck. It can happen with other kinds of names as well. We were playing charades (or Give Us A Clue as we used to call it, after the TV show) one Christmas, and someone was miming Bonanza and someone called out "Bow tie Nan", to much hilarity. Next Christmas, my Dad came to get me to play and said, "we're all playing Bow Tie Nan next door".

My niece actually had to be found a new name (she was going to be called Eloise) after there was a "name clash" with one of the cousins. In the end they called her Eleanor - a name nobody has yet seen fit to shorten, although I tend to pronounce it "El'na" whereas my dad says "EliNOR". Just recently one of the Dad's sisters called her own daughter Lois, so obviously the name clash no longer matters.

In other countries naming rules are much stricter than here - in Germany, for example, names have to be gender-specific. Oh, and Ana and Mia sound too unusual to not be deliberate, even if Ana has a Spanish surname.

The Goldfish said...

I once had an argument with a primary school teacher when we were asked how many syllables our names had, I said three and she insisted that Deborah - which my family pronounce like your Dad pronounces Eleanor - only had two.

Another thing I should have mentioned in my post is that Mum, Marilyn, loathes her name partly because of the Monroe thing, but partly because of the way her mother - who was a very unpleasant person but has become much friendlier and happier through dementia - pronounces it, in a very strong Ipswich accent, dragging out the first syllable, so it's something like Maaaghilyn, and sounds like a complaint - partly because it was so often accompanied by some kind of complaint.

Caramella said...

Fascinating! I never liked my old-fashioned first and middle names when I was younger - I've rarely seen my given name in women less than 30 years older than me - but I'm growing more comfortable with it. I guess it helps that the men in my life inexplicably prefer to call me by my full, old-fashioned name, rather than the diminutive.

I immediately thought of transitioning folk when I was reading your article, and felt that choosing your own name would be very hard. I was surprised this week when I heard a radio report on transgender teens, and one of the women speaking seemed to have found it remarkably easy to choose a new identity for her preferred gender. I've spent over a week choosing a name for a pet, let alone a child or myself.

The Goldfish said...

Thanks for your comment Caramella (also, great name. My favourite ice cream!)

I think it's probably quite common to go through a phase of disliking our names when we are younger - lots of folks seemed to go through that. And it certainly does help when your name is regularly spoken in love and/ or lust.

One oddity about names is that we do tend to love the names of the people we love. Not just romantically, but our friends and family. And I've never heard anyone say, "I've met this really great girl and I'm head over heals, but the trouble is, she's called Morag."

I had a friend who had a loud voice and a harsh accent but nevertheless managed to make her boyfriend Roger's name sound like some kind of delicate dessert.

Caramella said...

Thank you, Goldfish! You're right about the names of loved ones becoming more beloved - similarly, I struggle to percieve 'Kevin's in a good light, due to a particularly unpleasant kid I went to school with.

And I should have clarified - Caramella is my blogging name; my real name is the old fashioned one!

JaneB said...

Females in fiction: Modesty Blaise comes to mind, that's a fabulous name!

Apparently the primary criterion for my mum when she was choosing names for me and my sister was that she couldn't think of an abbreviation she disliked... so we both have one very common monosyllabic name. Mind you, my Dad's version is that I was named after his favourite boat, and my name is also one of the female versions of the first-born-male-name in my Dad's family... common names allow for multiple interpretations.

It greatly confuses visitors that we are known within the family as Hepzibah (me - the late comer - a first baby several weeks late in arriving...) and Bella (my sister, short for Isabella, which WOULD have been her name until my Mum decided it sounded wrong with the rhythm of our surname and that she hated the diminutive Izzy).

You didn't mention the sound of the name as a whole as a criterion - for example, I have a friend who was going to be 'Ruth Smith' until her Mum decided that that would be mean if she had a lisp - Ruth Thmith would be a nightmare for the child - so changed it to 'Rebecca'. I also know people who claim to have used the word or acronym spelt by the initials to have affected their choice of name...

Very interesting post!

The Goldfish said...

Caramella - Yes, I think that association is common. Several family members in schools, and they have described the difficulty in warming to a child that shares a name with an absolute horror they had to deal with previously. Also, they say that there are names which tend (not always, but often) to go with naughty children. Which in a way is quite a dangerous thing - it's not necessarily about race or class or anything, but it reminds me of black people using "white" names in job applications, because of implicit bias.

I did guess as much about Caramella, but it is a great name that you chose for yourself. :-)

JaneB - Modesty Blaise is indeed an excellent name!

My fiance's grandmother had a similar attitude towards abbreviations, thus choosing Ruth for fiance's mother, and expressing disapproval for Ruth's choice of Emma for her own daughter, as it was bound to be abbreviated to "Em" (although it very rarely is).

My sister & brother-in-law took the acronym issue into account - since Rosie married, her initials spell RAT. Sophie's initials spell SET, but there were some words - FAT, POT, WET etc. - which would be a little unfortunate.

I've been thinking a lot about the sound of names lately because I've got to make a decision about my surname when I get married next year. Part of the reason I kept my name the first time I married was because my ex's surname sounded wrong with my name. My fiance's is much better and anyway, I've got a much greater affinity with it - I feel as much part of his family as I do the one I was born into.

But whatever happens, I will always write under my maiden name; to me, D H Kelly is a pretty good name for a writer. It's not amazing or dramatic, but it is simple and to the point - like a more celtic-sounding D H Lawrence...

Thanks for your comment!

Matthew Smith said...

You could always add his name onto yours - that's the tradition in some countries (especially in the Spanish speaking parts of the world) and is common enough in the USA as well.

When you said your Dad pronounces your name like my dad pronounces Eleanor, do you mean he says "De-BOR-ah"? It's just that the "or" is the second syllable, rather than the third in Eleanor.