Writing Secrets: The name game

 In All About Writing

How has your name affected your life? I used to have a photographer friend who believed you could judge people on their names. “Their parents named them and then socialised them,” he would say.

Hmm, except that we don’t always fall right in with what our parents want for us, do we? I recently met someone whose teenage son refuses to use his given name of Piet (“It’s so unoriginal, it’s so conservative, it’s not ME.”) and insists that everyone use the name Caliopurnius.

To cut this long story short: your characters’ names matter. Some writers say they pick names from phone books. That might be sufficient for the peripheral characters who people their world. But it’s not good enough for your main characters.

They need more attention. Who named them? What were their parents’ hopes and dreams for them? Did they reject the hopes represented by their names, or did they spend their lives trying to live up to them?

In my fifth book, my character Odette, spends her life feeling tortured about being named for a Resistance heroine when she perceives herself to be a coward.

Novelist William Boyd seems to have the same feeling about names. In his novel, Sweet Caress, he names his fictional early twentieth century photographer, Amory Clay.

She was given this androgynous name, Amory informs us, by her father. On the day of her birth, he placed a classified ad in The Times, informing the world of the birth of a son. To spite his wife, or the sign of a perverse wish to have a son, Amory muses?

Nonetheless it suited the life she led – courting scandal and danger in equal measure. While Amory’s father was away fighting in the Great War, her sister was born and named Peggy. Their mother judged to be a homely and solid name. But in Amory’s opinion, “never has a child been so misnamed” and Peggy later becomes Dido.

I’ll let Amory (or rather William Boyd) have the final say on the subject: “Names are important, I believe. They shouldn’t be idly opted for. You’re your name becomes your label, your classification. Your name is how you refer to yourself. What could be more crucial?”


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