Wednesday, 15 February 2012

What's in a name? - Linda Strachan

It may have caused havoc for the star crossed lovers, but as Shakespeare's Juliet famously said -

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

What does your name say about you? Does the person become the name or does the name mould the person?

In the Johnny Cash hit song 'A boy Named Sue' the main character's father named him 'Sue' to make him tough...
"I tell ya, life ain't easy for a boy named "Sue."
"Well, I grew up quick and I grew up mean,..'

but it wasn't something he was going to repeat himself..
And if I ever have a son, I think I'm gonna name him
Bill or George! Anything but Sue!

How often have you heard a name that conjures up an image even before you meet the person? Is there a Sandra or a Melanie, a Kevin or a Jack who comes to mind when you hear the name, reminding you of a positive, or much worse, a negative experience?

Very occasionally I meet someone whose name just doesn't seem to fit them.
I know someone whose name is Bill, but every time I see him the name Paul comes into my head. I have no idea why, he just looks as if he should be called Paul.

It's not something that has happened often, but again recently I met a teacher in a school whose name didn't seem to suit her, either. The name just didn't fit the person I saw, and I had a bit of a problem remembering her name because of it.
Perhaps it is just me, but has this ever happened to you?

How important is the name you choose for your child?
It is a badge they will likely wear for most of their lives but have little choice in themselves.  

Baby names often vary with the times, with children named after popular TV series characters who are long forgotten, or celebrities who are no longer famous by the time the child is entering high school.

Then there are those bizarre spellings, a real pitfall for any author at a book signing!

Choosing a name for your characters involves thinking about lots of different things and it throws up a few possible plot ideas, too.
  •  Is it a name that reflects their age, their background, their personality?
  • Does their name matter to them? Is it a positive or negative force in their lives?
  • Is it something another character might make a fool of, or turn into a nickname?
  • Is theirs a family name?
  • Perhaps they have a their surname that might have complicated problems attached to it?
In fact the way your character thinks about their name and how they react, or deal with problems it may cause, can tell so much about their state of mind and their personality and frailties.

In a recent post on Picturebookden Blog  Paeony Lewis explored how some picturebook authors go about choosing their characters' names.  Some people use names of people they know, others need to know the names of their characters before they start to write because it is such an important part of the character.

Do you have a problem with names? Do you need to choose your characters' names before you start to write about them or does the name come along later?

Is there a character in a book you have read whose name seemed particularly right, or just plain wrong?

What's in a name?

Linda Strachan writes books for all ages, from tots to teens and writing handbook Writing for Children A & C Black
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catdownunder said...

I think the worst thing I ever came across, and this is true, was a man whose parents had him baptised Sean. Nothing wrong with the name Sean but his surname happened to be Lamb...yes! They were looking to please a wealthy great-uncle. He left them nothing. Their son endured years of ridicule, left home the moment he was able to do so and (on reaching his majority) changed his name.
In "Sun on the Stubble" (an Australian classic) there is a chapter in which young Bruno Untermeyer Gunther (known as "Bugsie")is in strife over his investigation of the teacher's initials. Initials can be just as much of a problem!
Naming is a power ritual. I also know people whose names do not suit them. Some of them have had the wisdom to change them. Others spend their lives being uncomfortable with what they were given. (And, I find my characters name themselves!)

adele said...

Names are vitally important. Dickens knew this of course. My 'name' story is about the time I had a character called HILDA BOLT and I was very proud of that name. She was a terrifying, huge, sinister attendant at a launderette (remember those?). In the blurb of the book, there was a typo and she came out as HILDA BRETT which is of course something completely different: a nice lady you might meet at the WI. Oh dear! Very interesting post.

Linda said...

I like to consider two things: the sound of the name, and its meaning. I enjoy leaving little clues (or misdirections) to the personality of each character for the reader in my choice of name. A girl called Merryweather couldn't be anything but positive and outgoing, could she? But what about Miss Alfreds . . . ?

Sue Purkiss said...

In 'Northern Lights', I loved the name of the witch, Serafina Pekkala (may have spelt that wrongly)- and heard Philip Pullman say he got it out of a Finnish telephone directory, which I though was a very useful tip! (Though not necessarily the Finnish bit.)

Graeme Strachan said...

What's wrong with Sean Lamb? Sounds like a fair name to me. Is this a cultural thing?

Graeme Strachan said...

What's wrong with Sean Lamb? Sounds like a fair name to me. Is this a cultural thing?

Carole Anne Carr said...

Not too difficult for me, ie writing historical fiction for children, but was a bit stuck for a while when looking for a name for my Anglo-Saxon dogs. :0)

catdownunder said...

Perhaps it is a language and cultural difference Graeme but I can assure you that being a "shorn lamb" was not something he found funny but other people did. (BTW your surname gets some interesting pronunciation attempts here and of course Australians call Menzies "Men-zees".)

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Linda Strachan said...

Hi Cat

Yes I too was confused for a while until I realised you were saying Sean as shorn!!
Strachan has many pronunciations, even here. Ours is Stra-kan (although the scottish pronunciation of the ch is the same as in loch and not a hard K. ) But when I was in New Zealand they all wanted to say 'Strawn', and I hear that a bit in England, too. But what do I know it is my married name and I am only Scottish by marriage and because I was born and live here!!

I agree, Linda, names for characters are fun to play with and misdirect your readers.

Adele - Hilda Bolt is such a strong name, Brett is very different.

I might worry, Sue, about choosing names in another language. What if they translated into something ... ugh!!

agman said...

Cat When I lived in Australia they called menzies, Pig iron Bob!
Good interesting site

Paeony Lewis said...

Just seen your blog, Linda! I adore name stuff. Wish I could rename my children but they are happy to have traditional names that don't confuse anyone (unlike their parents, Garydd and Paeony). My husband's father was called Lewis Lewis, and in a perverse way I like that. And as for my story characters, I spend ages flicking through baby name books and there is no husband to tell me I can't call a child Artemisia (although an editor and common sense might say something).

Stroppy Author said...

Carole Ann, which names did you pick for your A-S dogs? I did some real A-S dogs in my PhD :-)

I find characters name themselves. Once I had to rename a character at final page proof stage when a different publisher announced a story of the same type with characters of the same names. I can never remember the replacement name as it just isn't his real name!