Mr Watzisname

Naming is a complicated matter. I know many parents have names picked out in advance of having children and then, I suppose, often the child grows to suit the name; others struggle to pick something appropriate. As family legend goes, my kid sister was nameless for a while after she was born.

Doctors mistakenly thought she would be a boy, so a boy’s name was picked out and ready to go – but then she popped out very much  a girl, and no one had a name to hand. I think her name suits her, and I wonder if that’s because there were a few days to find the name that fitted? (I understand we also had a Great Great Great Aunt or some-such distant relation whose name actually was ‘Girl’.)

“…please do call me Cordelia. It can’t matter much to you what you call me if I’m only going to be here a little while, can it? And Anne is such an unromantic name.”

I wrote a paragraph here touching on semiotics, signifiers and signifieds and what I could remember of Ferdinand de Saussure, but it all got a bit wretched and is a rabbit hole of thought, and I’ve just deleted the lot. Entirely too academic for a Saturday morning.

Personally, I’ve never felt connected to my own name. I’ll answer to most nicknames and, as long as they aren’t offensive, I don’t really care what they are. In terms of my actual name, I prefer my middle names. They feel more like me, for reasons I don’t entirely understand – but no one has ever called me by them, and I’ve never requested people call me by my middle names, and I think 31 is probably a bit late to start pursuing that. Besides, the lovely internet means I use them as my identifier all the time. And I don’t think it’s particularly made me a different person, so really – what’s in a name?

Numerology thinks quite a lot is in there. And various polls and bits of scientific research have been done in to the way people react to certain names and combinations of initials, and how your name can affect your work, how memorable you are, how successful you might be. Various magazines roll articles out on these things on an annual basis. (Not to mention that there are very vocal cretins like Katy Hopkins out there. But I’m not providing a link to that nonsense.)

Sometimes people do just look like their name. Donna Tartt, writer of the recently published and much lauded The Goldfinch, is one of those people who perfectly fits her name. In the photos I’ve seen, she has a sharp, black bob, red lipstick, tailored clothes, a slightly stern expression. If she had been made up, she couldn’t more perfectly personify her tailored, attractive and slightly frightening moniker. In that respect, she’s like a Dickens character come to life.

See? (Pic is the author photo from Little, Brown)
See? (Pic is the author photo from Little, Brown)

Dickens was bloody brilliant at names. Actually, so was Mervyn Peake (and look at his own name! Brilliant!) Patrick Ness (Chaos Walking trilogy, A Monster Calls, The Crane Wife) recently raised £500 for the Philippines by auctioning off a character name (part of the Authors for Philippines fundraising effort). The highest bidder’s name would be used to name a character in his next book. He could have ended up with something brutal to work with, but instead he ended up with the fabulous name, Henna Silvennoinen which he was, as memory serves, pretty happy with.

I suck at naming characters. If I could get away with them all being anonymous, every single one of my characters would be called ‘hey you’ and ‘oi, mate’. I recently called a character Phoebe. She’s been a failure from the get go and I’m writing her out of the story completely, and that’s partly because I type that name and then grimace. She doesn’t feel real.  While a rose by any other name may smell as sweet, I find that if I can’t name the characters in a way that ‘fits’, I struggle with that character and they fall flat.

This isn’t even conjecture. Right now, open on my computer, is the exception that proves the rule. In a rare aligning of the planets, I have a story where the names of the characters are all correct. They fit. I write the name and can see the person I’m writing about and I know what they would do and how they would react in any given situation. It’s a pleasure to scribble them, even (especially) the utter arseholes. Their voices and personalities are completely clear in a way that Phoebe never has been. All that’s left for me to do is screw up the story.

Where do you stand on names? Do you like yours? Has a story ever been ruined for you because the character seemed badly named? Or do I worry about these things entirely too much?

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