Updated: Mar 7, 2020
Let’s start with a list. A not necessarily random list of names. Presented in no particular order.
3. Ebenezer Scrooge
4. Mary Poppins
5. James Bond
6. Jane Eyre
7. Harry Potter
8. Jay Gatsby
9. Sherlock Holmes
10. Adolf Hitler
Unless you’ve been living in a galaxy far, far away, many of you will recognise most of the names on this list. A good number of you may even know all ten. Barring that one malevolent interloper at the bottom there (who I’ll come back to in a bit), those who are not familiar with every name will none the less probably guess that the list consists entirely of famous fictional characters.
And you’d be right, of course.
But it isn’t enough to just simply have heard of these names to know them. For they convey little meaning as names alone. None can be said to truly exist independently or in isolation. Who they are and what they represent is bigger than, and is determined by, more than their identities as individual fictional characters. Each is necessarily reliant on a whole set of internal and external factors besides; each is able to exist only as the sum of other parts, built from a broader history that consists of other players and referents, and whose combined purpose and significance, both inside and outside of the texts in which they appear, have become indelibly fixed in the narrow spaces of our minds and in the collective conscience of the wider world itself.
In other words, their fame or notoriety is made possible not only because of their numerous real and fictive associates but by the shared knowledge, experience and opinions of readers - that is to say, by at least two or more people with a common interest in them.
If you know Heathcliff - one of the darkest and most brooding fictional characters in literary history - you will know he cannot exist (in two senses of the word “literally”) without Cathy.
You will understand that who he is (perhaps what he always was), and what he becomes (perhaps due to the cruelty that is done to him), would be weaker without the pathetic fallacy of the bleak and windy Moors and without Wuthering Heights, the remote farmhouse to where he is brought as an orphan.
Without Edgar standing in the way of his happiness - and without the spectre of society’s mores of the time standing nebulously in the background of the pages - there would be no representation of the class snobbery prevalent in English society in the nineteenth century, and thus no conflict.
Without an eyewitness, and in the absence of Lockwood and his ghostly visitation in the novel’s opening, Nelly couldn’t and wouldn’t have had reason to narrate (her subjective version of) one of literature’s most heart-breaking and tragic love stories. And this classic work wouldn’t exist at all if not for its author, Emily Brontë.
So interconnected are these links (and countless more besides), edit out one or more, and the result would be an entirely different book from the one we know and that has endured.
Let’s briefly examine other examples.
Think who Harry Potter would be without Ron and Hermione or the fantastically named Dumbledore and Snape. Think where he would be without Privet Drive and the bullying Dursleys, without Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
What would Harry's purpose be without his opposite, Lord Voldemort, to provide that perennial plot device, the fight of Good against Evil?
Minus these, there would be nobody for whom we could cheer or at who we might boo and hiss, no settings, no drama, no movie franchise, and no merchandise to keep us fixated.
And - thanks to a once single mum with the noodle of an idea scribbling away in a café, we’d quite possibly have fewer kids discovering the pleasures of reading. (Not to mention that JK Rowling would be a few quid poorer. Which anyway is beside the point.)
There would be no “creature” without Byron and Percy Shelly’s "vital spark" discussion and a subsequent story-writing challenge, without the 19-year-old Mary Godwin's dream, without a fictional mad-scientist-cum-reanimator who would give scant consideration to civilising and educating the savage human-ragdoll creation to which he gave life!, and who becomes murderous and feared and marginalised and desperately lonely for that.
And what of Holmes and Watson and Moriarty and Baskerville and Reichenbach?
007, MI6, M, Q? (Here, you get the point.)
You can see, then, how intimately we can and must know these characters and their backgrounds for them to live in our collective minds as they do. So much so, it’s as if they achieve the impossible conceit of becoming flesh and muscle and blood and bone, of actually existing in the physical world alongside us.
By this thinking, it’s not so far-fetched to imagine that their authors are akin to small gods. For when they assign a name to a character, they give that character a chance of existence. They breathe air into their lungs, pump blood through their veins, bestow them interior and exterior lives, stand them in a world at once our own and not our own, curse them with flaws and fallibilities, with fears and dreams, thus making them human, awakening them as Dr. Frankenstein his monster, with a bolt of creative lightning, and setting them loose to make their mark on an unsuspecting world.
This act of “naming” should not be taken lightly, then. Name-calling is an enormous responsibility and may determine your characters’ impact on the world and their longevity in it. And when a writer gets it right, you can see from above, the incredible, the extraordinary thing that can happen.
So how do you, as a writer, avoid getting it wrong?
Of course, there are no guarantees. Famous fictional names only become famous fictional names by a combination of the invention of an enduringly memorable character and the great story in which they appear; historical timing and their place in history thereof; brilliant writing; craft and graft; originality (possibly); and not forgetting a tiny sprinkling of good luck (maybe).
As well as any number of other factors too mysterious or elusive to know.
Piece of cake, then!
Well, actually, there are things we can know.
Though we may not always be consciously aware, names are loaded with meaning and information. For example, it needs no explaining why the name Adolph died in a wisp of gunsmoke in a bunker in 1945 and hasn’t been revived since.
For the most, anyway.
In 2016, a couple identifying as neo-Nazis made the headlines less because they were convicted of belonging to a banned right-wing group and given ten year prison sentences, but more because they named their baby son after a bitterly failed artist and former moustachioed German dictator who sanctioned a Final Solution to erase from the planet a particular race of people and who has come to symbolise evil incarnate.
(An act of baby-naming that might perhaps be construed as child abuse?)
Similarly, think of the name Osama and immediately one thinks of someone responsible for funding and coordinating the attack on the World Trade Centre and the murder of hundreds of innocent civilians. One thinks of the (former) head of a sophisticated terrorist organisation whose network reaches far and wide. One thinks of a James Bond-like villainous baddie with a religious agenda hell-bent on converting the world to Islam and rejecting the Western way of thinking.
Or else one thinks of a hero who personifies the greatness of God Himself and after who one would be proud to name one’s male offspring.
You can blame history and culture for this. For these two mischeivous sprites programme us to respond to certain names in a certain way.
For instance, one American study found that the boardrooms of big companies are dominated by Peters, Johns, Harrys, and (probably) quite a few Dicks. That women with gender-neutral names - Alex, Chris, Glenn - are more likely to break through the glass ceilings of corporate industries than other females.
It’s also true that if the name on your résumé does not appear “white”, it’s more likely to be thrown on the rejects pile. This perhaps is not just a case of unconscious bias – racial or otherwise - but more ingenuously, due to the embarrassment that might be felt by an interviewer unable to pronounce a phonetically challenging moniker.
Names act on us on a subliminal level, without our knowledge or permission.
William and James and Robert might remind us of educated, reliable, virtuous upper-middle-class men who occupy positions in law and politics and banking. While Beryl and Edna and Ethel are likely to locate us in a particular decade: in the 1920s, as working-class children; in the ‘50s, as dutiful housewives scrubbing hearthstones; and in the present, as purple-rinsed pensioners in care homes.
So it’s no accident that when thriller writers are searching for an appropriate sobriquet for their Alpha-male protagonist, that they tend not to settle on names such as Kim, Desmond or Nigel. I mean, ever heard of a Nigel doing anything to save the country from
Choosing a name for our characters is important, then. Perhaps one of the most important decisions a writer has to make. So what happens when a writer decides, in the final draft of a long project, to suddenly change the name of his or her protagonist?
That's exactly what I did in my novel The Meaningless Killing of Luke Little, and what this creative writing blogger shall be exploring in the second part of The Writing-Class Blog: Wtf did you call me?
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