Saturday, 1 May 2010

What's in a name?

Ordinarily, I would defer to anything Shakespeare said. After all, he is the bard of Avon and, compared to him, I am just an also-ran. But in this instance, I think he was wrong.

While it is true that a rose would smell just as sweet even if you called it a dandelion, and garlic would still be pungent if you renamed it lavender, the same just isn't true of people.

A person's name is very, very important. It can colour their character, and our perception of them. It gives away age, social status, ethnic origin; it can even display their interests and let us know which football team their parents supported.

This was ably demonstrated in the film, "Shakespeare in Love" when Tom Stoppard had the playwright penning a tragedy about Romeo and Ethel. Would Romeo's love really have stood the test of time for Ethel as it did for Juliet?

For a moment, enter the realm of imagination and try to picture the following people:

Tristan Ponsonby-Smythe
Beckham Smith

Chances are, they don't look alike. They're different ages, their ancestors come from different parts of the globe, their religious beliefs, upbringing, schooling, career choices, even what you picture them wearing, is different in each case. I'll be very surprised if Ethel is under sixty or Tristan Ponsonby-Smythe wears a hoodie and has a walk that's somewhere between a seaman's roll and an arrogant swagger.

And as with real life, so with characters in fiction. As authors, we have to help our readers identify and know our characters in the shortest time and space possible. Giving them a suitable name can cut thousands of words from your explanation and description, and can, in some instances, be the difference between your story being accepted and rejected.

There's a reason why so many fictional bad boys are called "Johnny". Patrik Swayze's character in "Dirty Dancing", Marlon Brando in"The Wild One", virtually every cowboy film villain, half the characters played by Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, were called Johnny. The name is shorthand for bad-boy-but-redeemable-and-irresistible-to-film-going-women.

Likewise, heroes tend to have short one or two syllable names. Jack Bauer, Jack Reacher, Sam Spade, Rick Blaine. No nonsense, timeless, ageless, tough. There are exceptions, but on the whole, they're short and snappy, like the stories, the sentences employed in the telling of them, and the dialogue used.

Some names suit a genre better than others. When did you last see a Mills and Boon heroine called Mabel? Even if the book was set at a time when Mabel would be a popular name. Say Marilyn, and you do not expect a big waddling woman with acne, warts and a beard. If you call your couple Fred and Florence, you might sell clothes in a supermarket, but you probably won't sell your story to a romance publisher, no matter how steamy and tear jerking it is.

Sometimes, a name can become better if we use its foreign counterpart. Vincent is not really as romantic a hero as Vincenzo, Laurence comes across differently if we call him Lorenzo. Diminutives work too. Rick instead of Richard, Will insead of William, Josh is somehow cooler than Joshua, and so on.

So, sorry Mr Shakespeare, but the answer to your question is, there's an awful lot in a name, and as writers, we need to be aware of that and choose carefully and wisely. After all, your characters - and you - may have to live with what you called them for a very long time indeed.

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