Tag Archives: names

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.

What’s in a name?

Here’s another instalment from the “it’s not hard to find story ideas” file.

The scene: A major retail complex in a major city, reasonably late at night. A bored retail assistant is attending to tedious tasks, waiting for a customer. Two security guards wander past and she asks, “Have there been any more bomb threats lately?” They chuckle and don’t really answer. She mumbles under her breath, “I’d so like to put a bomb under this place.” She sighs. Goes back to pricing items.

I wander closer and see her name tag, Eleanor.

Me: “That’s an unusual name. I don’t see many Eleanor’s these days.”
She: Sigh. “It’s not after the Beatles’ song or President Roosevelt’s wife. My friends get Ellie or Elle and I got Eleanor because my parents just liked it.”

From where I’m sitting, those two exchanges are enough to build a character for a story. In reality, she’s a teenager with an unrewarding job making a thoughtless, throwaway comment. In a story, she could be anything. What if she meant the bomb threat? What if she’d been making the bomb threats? What’s her back story? Does she resent her parents and wish she had a different name? What does she secretly call herself?

Perhaps I think too much. I do find names to be a good starting point for conversations and characters. And, as I’ve said many times here, ideas for stories are all around. Watch and listen.