Thursday, 18 August 2016

What's in a name? --- by Linda Strachan

NAMES - they are such personal things.

You may (or may not) like the name you were given by your parents, but of course it can be changed with greater or lesser degrees of difficulty.  Some names appear to place you in a certain group, either by nationality, geography, culture or even social status. Is that a good or bad thing, or merely interesting?

New parents sometimes have real problems when deciding on names for their children, and if you have ever been asked to sign books you quickly discover how many spellings there are for what would appear to be very ordinary names.    It is also strange that some names are almost too 'old' for  a new baby but the same name would seem fine in an adult.  Some names are fashionable for a short while trending when parents name their children after celebrities or characters on TV or in books.

Do you have a different name when you are writing?  It occurs to me that it might cause a problem when you start signing your books, do you sometimes use your own name by mistake, or worse what happens when you have been signing a lot of books with your pseudonym and soon afterwards you are asked to write a cheque or give a signature for something legal; is it difficult to remember who you are supposed to be?  It conjures up all kinds of possibilities for comedy, and perhaps more serious consequenses in this security conscious world.

How you spell your name can be an interesting conversation point or is it just an eternal irritation when no one gets it right?

I recently received an email from a young lady called Seonaid and when we met up I realised that I had no idea how to pronounce her name.  I only discovered later that it was pronounced  'Shona'. Thankfully it did not matter at the time as I never had to say her name, but although I love the way she spells it,I cannot help but wonder how it would feel to have to correct people all the time?

I admit that I am terrible at remembering names, but a greater problem happens when I get the wrong name for someone into my head and cannot shift it.  A few years ago I met a friend's husband and for some reason I was sure his name was Paul - he also looked like a Paul (to me - don't ask!)  But his name was not Paul, it was Bill.  The problem was he never looked like 'Bill' to me and still doesn't.

This happened again to me very recently when I had quickly read an email and mistook the name Philip with Peter and it didn't help that his surname also began with P.  And now the poor chap will, it appears, be forever Peter in my head. Yesterday I met him for the first time and he seemed, thankfully, not too upset with my mistake and occasional slip as I tried to remember NOT to call him Peter, until eventually it became a point of humour. Luckily he has a great sense of humour (Phew!)

Character names can create a difficulty, especially if you are wanting to make up a name, perhaps for a fantasy or other world story.  I am fascinated by the fact that some names just don't sit right with particular characters. Others I need to use for a while to get used to them, as if the character grows into it.  There are name generators, but that always feels like cheating!
But if too many characters start with the same first letter it can be confusing for the reader, but not nearly as confusing as it is for the writer, when you decide to change character names well into writing the book, or if an editor advises it.

Do you have a problem with names?  Do you have a pseudonym, and if so, why? 

How do you choose your character names?  Does what someone calls you really matter (as long as it is not insulting)?


Linda Strachan is the author of over 60 books for all ages from picture books to teenage novels and a writing handbook - Writing For Children.

Linda is currently Chair of the SOAiS - Society of Authors in Scotland 

Her latest YA novel is Don't Judge Me . 
She is Patron of Reading to Liberton High School, Edinburgh.

Her best selling series Hamish McHaggis is illustrated by Sally J. Collins who also illustrated Linda's retelling of Greyfriars Bobby.

blog:  Bookwords 


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed that, Linda - odd how some names stick and others don't. I developed the technique of just giving characters a letter till their names 'came along' in order to avoid being held up; yet some characters are names before they are anything else, even before there's a story.

Anonymous said...

Hi Linda,

I know from my own experience names can be spelled a thousand and one different ways now, its always fun especially at children's parties haha.
I changed my name, my birth name was never a good fit for me so once I decided on a more fitting name I made the leap to officially change it and for me it was the best move I made, now my name feels like mine and I am really at ease with it, though people still ask me how to spell it just in case, and I also get a lot of people same, no that's not your name is it?

catdownunder said...

My characters name themselves - something I sometimes find extremely annoying! I do however own quite a number of those baby name books as I sometimes need to use them as tools to find out whether I am corresponding with a male or female when I am working. The odd thing is that they don't seem to have an impression on my characters.

Susan Price said...

Great blog, Linda! You're right about a slight change in name making a big difference. I am called 'Susan', 'Sue' and by one person only, 'Susie.' These do seem like three different people! 'Susan' is, I feel, very grown up, poised and in control and I have never felt it fitted me well at all. I've never liked it. - 'Sue' is better: Sue is much less grown-up and rather scatty and slap-dash. As for 'Susie' - I'm not sure I know her at all. She sounds like she should have bunches and a ra-ra skirt.

And I, too, am terrible at fitting names to clearly remembered faces.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I sometimes think I should have had a pseudonym. No one can spell or pronounce my surname which makes it harder to look me up online. As you say, it might be confusing if you went to a book signing. My characters are named according to the world in which they appear. All my fantasy stories are set in a country loosely based on one in our own world. Once I've established the background, I then think about the characters, eg I had a woman who was meant to be annoyingly soppy, so I picked a soppy name. In fact, I gave her the name of Chaucer's Prioress, and late in the book she decided to enter that world's version of a convent. As a teacher, I can usually tell who was popular on TV or films when my students were born, eg there were a lot of Lukes in our classes some years after the release of Star Wars. One young lady at my last school was named Dayna; she was startled when I asked if her parents were Blake's 7 fans - they were. :-)

Nick Green said...

Character names are so hard - I think because they are obviously intentional. A real-life person can be called Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger, but no-one would believe in a work of fiction that had two such unlikely names for action heroes. I always smile in Back To The Future 3 where Marty (stuck in the Old West) tries to bolster his own morale by introducing himself as 'Eastwood. Clint Eastwood.' The response? 'What kind of dumb name is that?'

In my first Firebird book I had over 25 named characters (not including the adults) so I admitted defeat and picked more or less at random from a list of popular names from the current year.

Linda Strachan said...

I love the idea of using letters until you are sure of your characters' names, John

Linda Strachan said...

Pixie, I have to say I am now so curious about what your original name was, but I can understand how important it can be, to feel comfortable with your name.

Cat, I love it when a character walks in and is so well defined that their name is just there. But I have found myself feeling increasingly out of sorts with a character's name until I eventually have to change it, usualy as I get to know the character better.

Sue I love it that you discovered that she was named after a character from Blake 7. I can fully appreciate what a problem a difficult surname is, before I was married my name was always being pronounced or spelt wrong, although I am considering using again for some of my writing! Names that are different are sometimes more memorable...

Linda Strachan said...

Susan (Sue- I do think it suits you better!) Isn't it strange how different versions of the same name can build expectations, even when it is the same person. Glad I am not the only person who gets names wrong!

Nick, yes character names can be a minefield, but it is that thing about truth being often so much stranger than fiction. We have all heard of a story that is such coincidence that if it was ficiton everyone would say it was ridiculous and was not credible, which is why fiction sometimes has to be a modified version of (often weird) reality, so that it becomes more credible. Who said being a writer was easy! :)