Sunday, 12 January 2014
The history and power of a name
In the poem Choosing a Name, Anne Ridler wrote:
'I love, not knowing what I love,
I give though ignorant for whom
The history and power of a name.'
She continued to describe herself as one 'summoning unknown spirits,' and that the child will take the name and tame it, changing and defining the name just as the name influences and defines the child.
The same is true of the characters we create. We choose their names, crafted to our requirements for the story we are creating and those names are fundamental to our characters' lives and actions. In that way we are a parent and sometimes fool ourselves into believing we are in command of our creations. Then there is the point in which our characters escape from our control and rebel, like adolescent children, or crossly remind us that they are grown up now. Of course some writers say that they will not let their characters take control but for those of us who are happy to run with it, the results are great fun and incredibly satisfying. And, perhaps, for some readers the characters and the names 'exchange a power' and our fictional characters gain a resonance of their own. I know several people called Andrew or Andy but if somebody threw the name Andy at me, out of context, my first thought would be of Reginald Hill's magnificent creation Andy Dalziel.
Of course, when choosing names, there are rules you have to accept. It doesn't do much for your credibility if you pick a name for your Regency heroine that hadn't been invented until the 20th Century. And it's not fair to the reader if you use a lot of names that look and sound alike, unless you're using it for a deliberate purpose. Life is too short for the reader to spend time distinguishing between Dan and Don and Tim and Tom and many people will simply stop reading. It's an incredibly easy error to fall into and I'm as guilty of this as anybody. To pick up on such problems before it's too late is what you need a good copy editor for. My colleague who is copy-editing my soon-to-be-published book, About the Children, pointed out that I'd got three characters whose names were all the same length and all began with L. For various reasons two of the names were non-negotiable, so sorry Liam, you're about to be re-named. That brings me to the good thing about choosing names for characters; they aren't real children and, in the preliminary stages, you can change their names without any expensive legal formalities, just press Find and Replace. I was several chapters into writing The Terminal Velocity of Cats and conscious of a vague dissatisfaction with the viewpoint character's name when I realised that I wanted to call her Mia. Amazingly, when I re-named her, changing from a more traditional and solid name, not only was the character easier and more fun to write but, in that moment, she lost at least seven pounds in weight.
I do use the Internet to find names, especially when hunting for foreign names, but I still believe that every writer should have at least one book of names on their bookshelf, and, without getting up from my computer, I can see that I've got at least seven names books very near to hand. I guess this is the point at which I stop distracting myself and take one from the shelf to start on the search for names that don't begin with 'L'.