Do you reckon you’d feel different if you’d been called something else? I mean, if you’d been called Benedict instead of Brian, or Mary instead of Andromeda? Do you think that a different name would make you see the world through different eyes?
Names always mean something but those meanings are moveable feasts. For my Scottish parents, Colin was a good Scottish name, Gaelic for Nicholas, but in England, where we lived, it was the name chosen in television dramas for the witless simpleton who worked in a warehouse. People call me Col in Australia, where every name has to be shortened. And in France, tins of colin line supermarket shelves and so a French friend insisted on calling me Hake. I never liked my name. When I was young, I rather fancied being called Justin, or Dominic, and I wonder how that might’ve been.
Do names really matter?
They do to novelists. Getting the names of your characters right is very important. Would you believe an Oxford academic called Taylee-Maree or a factory worker called Octavius unless there was a pretty compelling backstory to explain those choices? The main character in a thriller or a crime novel needs the right-sounding name. They tend to be rather blunt – think of Mike Hammer, Sam Spade, Jason Bourne, even Nancy Drew. My friend Victoria Blake’s feisty private investigator is called Sam Falconer, a name with strong consonants and an image of hunting down prey. There are exceptions, of course. Would someone call their private dick Ellery Queen today except with a knowing wink? Or Sherlock Holmes? Names are no less important in other genres. Iris Murdoch, for instance, gave her solid, dependable women names like Hilda and Harriet.
Memorable characters tend to have great names: Heathcliff; Mr Pickwick; Anna Madrigal; Holden Caulfield; Scout. I defy anyone to say Jean Brodie without rolling that rrrr. Sheridan did a fabulous job with Sneerwell, Snake and Backbite but while that worked a treat in the eighteenth century, it’s a rather tired device today. My heart sinks when I open a novel and find characters with absurd names. If someone is called Bumfutter then there’s a good chance the book they’re appearing in is going to be pretty dire. A ‘comical’ name in a book is as delusional as the person who tells you they’ve got a really good sense of humour. Films do it, too, like ‘Meet the Fockers’.
There are exceptions but they’re probably personal. Viv Stanshall’s Sir Henry of Rawlinson End and Scrotum, the wrinkled retainer, still makes me laugh. And then that genteel comedy duo, Flanders and Swann, came up with the perfect English name: Emily Butter. How wholesome and sweet and pure she sounds. But wouldn’t a novelist have fun exploring her dark side (as nutty as burnt butter)!
In ‘Not Always To Plan’ I wrote about a family spurred into action by a surprise legacy. They’d been pottering along, a little lost, not really thinking of where life was headed. So I called them the Dormans, thinking of dormice (small world, fast asleep for half the year). I wanted them to be relatable, rather ordinary middle-class folk, and so I chose unremarkable names. Hence Ruth was married to Tom, and they had two children, Ryan and Natasha (I thought Ruth, an avid reader, would have fallen for the romantic connotations of something like Natasha). The names encapsulated the kind of people I was writing about – stolid Ruth, dependable Tom, that kind of thing. Other names were chosen because they were names I heard regularly, and as the novel was set in the suburb in which I live, I knew what sounded right.
With ‘Loving Le Corbusier’, I didn’t have to worry about names because every character except one was based on a real-life person. And yet it took a while to decide on the name for this exception, who was Yvonne Le Corbusier’s pal when she first arrived in Paris in 1918. I went through lists of the most popular names in France at the beginning of the 20th century and ended up with Lisette, because it sounded as pert as I’d imagined this down-to-earth beauty to be. But what if I’d called her Clothilde or Hortense instead? Would it have mattered? Perhaps not, except to a French reader who might attach different meaning to those names.
In researching the life of Le Corbusier, it was fascinating to discover just how many people had changed their name in the early twentieth century. Of course I knew that Le Corbusier’s real name was Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, but even his wife Yvonne had been born Jeanne and changed it at some point. Jean Badovici had Italianised his name from the Romanian, Badoviso. I kept tripping over others of the period who had done the same thing, too.
We think nothing of film stars changing their names although it’s charming to discover Diane Keaton’s real surname is Hall. Vin Diesel sounds much more macho than Mark Sinclair, who sounds more like a software designer than an action hero. As kids we laughed our heads off when we discovered John Wayne’s real name was Marion. In the past, many changed their surname to fit in, to sound less alien, and in some cases less Jewish, like Samuel Gelbfisz (Goldfish) becoming Sam Goldwyn, and Ralph Lifshitz becoming Ralph Lauren. And of course singers are always changing their names, although some, like Madonna and Kylie, have managed to turn their own into something like a trademark.
I know a few people whose names would be perfect in novels. Some, like mine, will only ever see the cover and never the contents.
What are your favourite names from novels?