Names count. Writers agonise over them. Probably spend more time caring about their characters’ monikers than they do about a rotten review on Amazon. Go on, admit it.
“Oh yeah,” some authors will tell you, “it’s worse than trying to come up with new names for babies.”
“Or a new kitten in the house,” you say. “I know exactly what you mean.”
“No, far worse than that,” these very same authors continue. “I said babies. Plural. You see, it’s not just one child or moggie that needs a new name – it’s several households at once, shedloads of them, entire blummin’ streets and villages and towns.
“In fact, half the time you’re better off leaving the characters’ names to the end. You should see my early drafts, where ‘Male Protagonist #4’ (shortened thereafter to ‘MP4’) is about to murder ‘Unnamed Female #5’, or MP4 is in an emotional entanglement with ‘Emily’s sister, YYYY’. You can always go back and replace YYYY later.”
“Isn’t it simply postponing the inevitable?” you ask.
“Ah no, not really,” they reply (amazing how these authors are all able to talk in perfect unison). “It’s not about procrastination per se. You see, your characters won’t arrive fully formed on the page or screen – you need to give them time to develop, to ferment if you like, in a relatively organic fashion.”
“You make it sound like making bread or beer,” you say.
“Exactly. So in the early stages you can use placeholders or labels as you let your cast members bubble away,” our authors continue. “Almost any old name will do. Almost any, but…”
“Well, apparently when Harold Pinter began a play he’d always call his characters ONE and TWO or A., B., and Girl.”
“What’s wrong with that?” you say.
“Obvious. Too messy. Harold clearly wasn’t using find-and-replace in Microsoft Word. But we’re getting away from the main point, which is: even if you’ve already given all your characters names, you’re not stuck with them for ever, and neither or they.”
“Unless they are recurring characters in a series?”
“Yeah yeah. Thing is, there’s a strong chance that the name they start off with will change as their personality develops. So it pays to play around with the names, taking time to see what fits.
“Sometimes I’ve even swapped characters’ names around. Terry becomes Graham and Graham becomes Terry. It can be a bugger to do the find-and-replace, but you can end up with a much better balance, if your know what I mean, if Terry turns out to be more of a Graham and Graham is more of a…”
* * *
But with all the fluidity of this name-changing we reach – what shall we call it? – we arrive at a crossroads, a conundrum, a dilemma, a problem that wouldn’t look out of place in a conference on particle physics.
For want of a better name, let’s call it “The Pansy Paradox”.
A character’s name can be accidental, arbitrary, temporary or permanent. On the one hand it is simply a label, on the other it can radiate so many connotations. This in turn can alter the relationship between the character and (a) the reader, (b) the writer and (c) other characters.
* * *
Example #1: Connie Gustafson
Each name will, in its own little way, obviously affect your readers and how they imagine the character. For example, suppose you start writing a novella with a wacky heroine. Make her a sort of literary descendant of Christopher Isherwood’s Sally Bowles. You decide to call her Connie Gustafson.
After a few drafts and iterations this novella becomes Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Connie Gustafson has morphed into Holly Golightly.
In your author role you may stand back and think it’s the same character more or less, apart from her name tag. Yet your readers’ readings of this character will – to some degree, perhaps at an almost subconscious, subatomic level – be shaped and affected by this name. Because a Gustafson is no Golightly.
So far you may think this is all stating the bleeding obvious: names have cultural baggage, characters’ names will have some kind of minor effect on how readers read them, and Connie Gustafson sounds too like Scandi noir.
But surely it’s not just readers who are affected by the names. What about the poor author?
Example #2: Pansy O
There you are, scribbling away at your latest blockbuster. For sake of argument let’s make it a historical novel, a Bildungsroman set in turbulent times: the Irish Civil War. No, not Ireland but the American Civil War and the subsequent fables of the Reconstruction.
The central theme will be your main character’s epic struggle to survive, within this sweeping tale of war, racial conflict and scoundrels and scallawags and so on.
You decide to call this central character Eric Grimshaw.
No, start again. Not a bloke, and not a Grimshaw – too English. A woman. And make her Holly. Sorry, no, not another Holly again. Call her Daisy. No, Pansy. Perfect.
And give her an Irish dad called Gerry; no, Gerard; no, Gerald. And an Irish granny. And a mam called Ellen who is of French descent somewhere along the line.
Layers of this Pansy character are beginning to build up. She is American, yet sort of three quarters Irish and a quarter French. She could sing a chanson while wearing a green shirt under the “Granny Rule”, as they say in international soccer circles.
But Pansy doesn’t play football. Because once you’ve named her Pansy you have already begun to imbue her with more and more Pansy-like qualities. She will hate PE and all forms of physical exercise. She will prefer proper “ladylike” pursuits such as needlework, pressing wild flowers and baking carrot cake with an icing topping.
Her name has already begun to affect your attitude to her, and how you will allow her to develop as a character. Go on, admit it, you’re beginning to turn Pansy into a bit of a wallflower.
* * *
Much of the above is true, by the way. Pansy didn’t get her final name until shortly before the finished book went to print. Then she ended up as Scarlett O’Hara.
Anyway, here’s a further aspect of the Pansy Paradox. Forget the readers and the author, and ask yourself: how will the character’s name affect his/her interactions with all the other characters in your book?
Take a rash real-life decision involving names and naming. You and your partner were both quite squiffy at the time, it was the first night in months you’d had a decent drink, and now the baby is born and everyone keeps hassling you for the child’s name and one thing led to another and…
That’s how your kid ends up this morning being called Adolph Judas Iscariot Feeney. That name will cause the poor unfortunate kid all kinds of grief in the school playground and, later on, at airport security.
You may think these are extreme examples. But isn’t everyday life all about fitting in? You may think it will toughen up your “offspring”, to call him something like Pansy O’Hara. But if this is a realistic novel he is bound to be picked on by other characters – nasty brutish little runts of the litter called, er, Brad and Chuck.
In this very direct way your lad called Pansy will stand out and be shaped, all thanks to his name.
Or perhaps at the tender age of nine and a half Pansy will confront his inner feelings and tell his authoritarian Irish dad that “There’s no point any longer in trying to live up to your overarching petite bourgeois expectations and fascistic tendencies, Papa.”
Young Pansy has begun a journey of independence and self-discovery, and it’s all down to that naming accident all those years ago. Or maybe Pansy will get shortened by page 24 to Pans, or tweak his name to Dansy or Gansy, because he figures everyone knows Dansy O’Hara or Gansy O’Mara sounds ten times better.
Or on reaching adulthood he will leave home, get a fake ID or change his name by deed poll. A new name in a new town. He will call himself Heisenberg. Or Schrödinger. Or Wittgenstein or something.
Anything but O’Hara. Or Sue of course.