Tag Archives: meaning

What’s in a name?

I should probably make a confession.

If I don’t like you – and by that I mean you have somehow earned sufficient demerit points to enter the Zone reserved for the utterly loathsome and grudge-worthy – then there’s a (slim) possibility I might name a character after you.

It will probably be a villain. Or a victim. You know the type. The kind of character that gets one bitchy line in a horror movie and then gets slashed in the next scene. That type of character. Expendable.

Indeed, I find it amusing when authors offer readers the chance to be a character in their next book as a ‘prize’ in a competition. What responsibilities rest with that offer? Is the winner guaranteed a character that is healthy, wealthy, wise and lives in a tropical paradise? Is the author ethically bound not to mess with the character’s fortunes?

It’s not an offer I’m likely to make because I don’t always know how my characters will fare during the course of a story I’m writing. I’d hate to inform you that you’re a winner only to write a chapter where I discover your character contracts a terrible disease or crosses paths with a serial killer. It wouldn’t seem fair. Unless you’re a resident in the aforementioned Zone…

So, back to naming conventions. I’m regularly asked where my characters’ names come from. Sometimes the answer is as simple as, “I like the name”, “It sounds right,” or, “It’s easy to type”. Other names can involve actual work.

I check baby name books and websites for the meaning of monikers, mainly because I want things to gel. Unless I’m deliberately trying for humour, I wouldn’t want a scrawny, pacifist character to have a name that means ‘bloodthirsty, musclebound, axe-wielding warrior’, for instance. These things matter. Wherever possible, I strive for names that mean something in relation to the character’s personality or the plot.

In the manuscript I’m currently working on I was considering calling a Japanese character, ‘Asami’. I looked up the meaning and found it defined as ‘beautiful linen’, which didn’t match my plot at all. Then I met an Asami and politely asked why her parents would choose a name with that particular meaning. After she finished laughing, she said the name also meant ‘strength and quality’ … and that the Kanji character used to write her name could also mean ‘marijuana’.

Handy to know, right? As a result of that conversation, the character I have in mind is now called ‘Michiko’, which means ‘beautiful, wise child’.

Being of tabloid journalism origins, I am attracted to pun names, too. ‘Dan’, from my novel Five Parts Dead, was originally named Stu – in part because he’s a worrier. He stews a lot, geddit? Sigh. My publisher didn’t like it either and quite rightly suggested I seek a name with a more contemporary feel. I opted for Dan not so much for the biblical meaning (God is my judge) but for the story of Daniel in the lions’ den.

I also keep an ear out for accidentally memorable names – like Reverend Blood, Doctor Death and my all-time favourite, Cardinal Singh (pronounced Sin). I’ve read of a Collingwood supporter’s daughter being christened Victoria Park and been told of a Vietnamese-Australian family naming their first-born Donald Duc. I don’t know that I’d ever deliberately use a real name (although my subconscious chose one once and I almost dug myself a very deep hole) but it’s good to reserve the right to go with an outrageous option once in a while.

As for those special folk in the Zone, well, I wouldn’t use your names outright, either. There are laws against that sort of thing. I might take a syllable from a name and merge it with part of another odious acquaintance’s name. The end result would be a hybrid and very fictitious name – matched to some truly despicable character traits. Authors need some semblance of power, after all.

No one would know the origins but me. And I think that’s for the best. Luckily for all of us, I very rarely hold a grudge.

Turning to books 2

Further to my previous post, here’s what the doyen of screenwriting teachers, Robert McKee, says in his book, Story:
 
“Imagine in one global day, the pages of prose turned, plays performed, films screened, the unending stream of television comedy and drama, 24-hour print and broadcast news, bedtime tales told to children, barroom bragging, back-fence internet gossip, humankind’s insatiable appetite for stories. Story is not only our most prolific art form but rivals all activities – work, play, eating, exercise – for our waking hours. We tell and take in stories as much as we sleep – and even then we dream. Why? Why is so much of our life spent inside stories? Because, as critic Kenneth Burke tells us, stories are equipment for living.”

McKee goes on to say: “Story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence”.

I was fortunate enough to attend an intense three-day course with McKee a few years ago. Here’s what he wrote in my copy of his book: “To Tim, Write the truth.” I take this to be part of McKee’s crusade for stories with meaning and universal relevance – as opposed to the soulless material excreted from major film studios with an eye on revenue rather than story.