Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

What’s in a Name? Names in Fiction and What they Say to Us

Part of Naming Week on Vulpes Libris

A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but would it make such good poetry if a rose was called a “purtle” or a “splodderer”?

When Bookfox Kate mentioned a “names” themed  week, I wasn’t sure what I could contribute. Names? It’s a bit of a narrow focus, isn’t it? Is there really much to say about names?

But as the theme has percolated in my head, I realised that names are curious things in fiction and also important to my own writing. I began chewing over why it is that we know some characters by their first names and others by their surnames. I thought about the kinds of names you get in different genres, the associations we have with names, and the fact that names are more than names – they are words. And – of course – there’s always that hoary old chestnut – the man/woman issue.

RosyB’s comedy novel

Comedy characters often have silly-sounding or allegorical names. Take  “Blott” in Tom Sharpe’s fantastic “Blott on the Landscape”, or anything you like from Charles Dickens.

I write comedy that is slightly larger than life but also rooted in observation, so I don’t tend to go for full-blown mock-allegorical names, or names that are so stereotypical they belong in a sketch. I want likely names for my character, but they also have to be right and I am quite particular about them. As a writer, I often find that the name is what nails the character for me.  I can sit as long as I want writing out character studies and working out what people want for breakfast, their favourite colour and their childhood traumas but I can’t get anywhere until I find the right name. And if I am still struggling with a character – maybe I have the wrong name.

I realise my own head contains a whole set of images and assumptions about names. Can you see an 89 year old member of the Women’s institute called Lola or a trendy teenager named Doris? But it’s not just a generational thing. I associate all sorts of names with all sorts of things. I cannot even begin to unpick it. A lot of this is down to people you meet with that name – particularly the unusual ones. There was a particularly unpleasant girl I knew as a child, for example, with a particularly unusual name and if I hear that name in fiction I have a great deal of difficulty getting away from those associations. Perhaps this is because, unlike life, a lot of fiction does not really tell you a huge amount about the characters you read about but allows your brain to fill in the gaps. It is amazing how you can have such a clear idea of what a person looks like, for example, but when you go to check you realise very little written information has been given about the look of the character. Therefore, when one of the main ways you encounter a character, through text, is by that written symbol of them: their name – it can be of great significance imaginatively.

It gets to be a bit of a problem as you get older. You tend to have met more and more people and more and more names become either associated with individuals you don’t want to offend or people who “get in the way” of your imagining a different person with the name, or – most annoyingly – just people you don’t like!

My main character in my comedy novel Sadomasochism for Accountants is called Paula. I realise thinking about this that I didn’t know any Paulas  at the time and this was probably key to why I chose it. I had no associations with the name in real life. And yet it was not an exotic name that jumped out at the reader – and my character was supposed to be fairly inconspicuous (despite the fact she spends her time camped up trees spying on her ex) – so this seemed right for her. It was a name that conjured up someone 30-45 in my mind. And it had a plainness and straightforwardness in the sound of the word that seemed right for my character. I didn’t want something too girly or too elaborate. My character had a certain resilience and I liked the straightforward sound of the word. In fact, the original name I had for this character for quite a while was Linda. Same two syllable construction. Similar age in my head. Again, I know no one called Linda. But somehow it wasn’t right.  I laboured away with it for a while, but I got rather stuck with the character. Things took off as soon as I changed her to Paula.

Paula’s annoying accountant ex – pompous, awful Alan – and her nemesis, the smart and ruthless Belinda, both came easily. Again, it’s probably significant that none of my friends or acquaintances at the time were called either of these names and I had no real associations with them from childhood. Neither are outlandish comedy names or particularly out of the ordinary. Alan is super plain and ordinary as a name. However, I couldn’t resist giving him a slightly ridiculous comedy surname – Prugg. A sort of combination of Smug and Prig. I felt I could get away with this coupled with “Alan”. And I feel you need a real comedy name every now and again. He is smug. The double g added a soupcon of pretention into the mix.

Alan and Paula are both plain and ordinary names. They are not names that jump out at you and that is right. But with both I coupled them with rather more exotic surnames – Prugg (comic) and Wocziak – for reasons I’ve no idea about at all except I threw it in as a kind of in-joke with myself because of my terrible spelling! (I cursed this later when it came to the copyedit.) But it stuck and seemed right somehow. Paula – being rather more interesting than everyone gives her credit for – deserved a rather more interesting surname hinting at something a bit more interesting, and perhaps, the ingenuity and self-reliance of her ancestors.

For cross-dressing Luda – who is quite strongly and stereotypically “male” in her day to day life but obsessed with her feminine side in “Luda-mode”,  I wanted something a little exotic and feminine but I didn’t want to choose a stereotypical girlie or sexy  or comic name that you might associate with a drag queen, as Luda is not a drag queen and would be very cross if you suggested this. I wanted something original and unique for Luda. I don’t know where the answer came from but it seemed to pop into my head from nowhere and – I feel – is the most solidly un-interchangable of my names.

All my characters I knew as first names first, with the surnames coming second. But in many genres we know the characters primarily through their surnames.  In particular, detective fiction. Take Ian Rankin’s famous police inspector – Detective Inspector John Rebus. We don’t know him as “John” despite the fact we are floating about in his thoughts a lot of the time – he is always “Rebus”. (Note the very ordinary first name and the more descriptive and unusual surname.)  Is this because we are to see him primarily through his “role”?

Interestingly, it is a trope of detective fiction that the main character is almost subsumed by their role  – obsessively hunting down murderers in the midst of ailing private lives. Knowing them by their surnames adds to this central idea. The most famously apt example is perhaps Inspector Morse, where we don’t even get to know his first name apart from the letter “E”. The first name of the detective almost signals that unknowable private part of the individual human being. These characters are subsumed in their role and that is how we know them.

John – as a first name – tells us nothing. However “Rebus” is an unusual name, and word, signifying the role of the detective, almost subliminally. “Rebus” is a sort of puzzle or pictogram, just as “Morse” is associated with the famous code. Even Sherlock Holmes has the word “lock” in there. Unlocking mysteries, codes and puzzles is what these characters do and, to some extent, is what they are. These names do not jump out at us in an allegorical or comedic fashion like “Mr Puzzle” or “Detective Inspector Rubix Cube”. But it conjures subconscious associations and images, nonetheless, which strike us at a deep level.

As does the name Kaye Scarpetta, Patricia Cornwell’s Chief Medical Examiner in her long-running series. Scarpetta (scars anyone?) wraps the sinister, her job and her Italian background all into one associative word, which becomes her name.

We associate surnames more with men than women, traditionally – conjuring images of Rowan Atkinson snootily saying “Widdle” in the superb headmaster sketch on Not the Nine o’clock News. In detective fiction that tradition is even stronger, therefore it’s interesting to see how female detectives get around this problem. Of course, there is the famous Miss Marple (do any of us ever remember she is “Jane”?) – keeping with the surname rather brilliantly due to the elderly respectable nature of Christie’s “little old lady” detective who exasperates so many policemen with her brilliant incisive mind. (Again I can’t help thinking that “Marple” sounds rather like “Marble” – of which Miss Marple has a few!)

It’s interesting (to me at least) that the name “Kaye” that Cornwell chooses for her heroine is as much as an initial as a name. And initials is how Sara Paretsky gets about the problem of how to identify her gutsy detective V.I. Warshawski. Paretsky seems to play a lot with this name in a subtle way that makes us aware of roles, assumptions and gender without actually banging on about it.

V.I. is actually called Victoria – quite a full and feminine name. But her friends call her “Vic” (gender neutral) and  she often seems to introduce herself as “V.I” which is not just gender neutral, but surely unusually impersonal.  It is clear that in some ways that V.I. is a tough crime-fighting woman in a traditionally man’s world (and role). But she is also a woman with close relationships with her friends and who runs and shares two dogs with her good friend and neighbour. She is not just a “role”, but the way she uses her name is her choosing to make that strong demarcation for a reason. The name is used to signal some of these tensions and ideas.

There is much more I could write about – from the first person identity of women in romantic fiction to the short active names associated with thrillers or action-plots. The more you  examine it, the more you realise that names are important signifiers in fiction. They are the word that, as a reader, you encounter again and again and again – the main signifier of that character. Everything about it – the sound, the look, the associations and the other meanings of that word or parts of the word can all carry information about that character – and help to build an immediate picture of that character for the reader, without them even realising that is what is happening.

It’s a tool that writers should think about and make work for them and that can be fun to unpick as readers, to see the maze of associations we have with the names of our favourite (and not so favourite) characters.

4 comments on “What’s in a Name? Names in Fiction and What they Say to Us

  1. Kate
    January 23, 2013

    Morse’s first name is Endeavour. A whole episode was built around that one coming out ..

    Great post! Lots to think about, and having just devoured S for Accs I am delighted to hear more about how you got the characters up and running through their names. Names for babies are just as hard to place as names for characters: when pregnant I refused point-blank to even consider some names for the baby because of my childhood associations with them. So choosing a name is choosing it for life. The character, or the baby, has to live with it, so it needs longevity. Though I rather like the idea of an elderly Lola: she must have been 20 once, surely?

  2. Jackie
    January 23, 2013

    This is the sort of piece I was hoping for when Kate brought up the theme. Not only did you tell us the process as an author, but you showed us the potential behind well known characters. I’d never thought about the fact of mystery characters best known by their last names. But you’re right (though I do like the idea of Detective Inspector Rubix Cube, now that you mention it)!
    As always, the psychological insight you bring to the topic is wonderful & I learned a lot. Another home run, Rosy!

  3. David Sage
    January 24, 2013

    Names are absolutely fundamental in speculative fiction, and you tend to have a little more freedom with the extent of naming so your point about “very little written information has been given about the look of the character” is a really pertinent one. Think of Terry Pratchett’s Rincewind or Twoflower. Martin named Joffrey and Arya perfectly. Frodo and Gollum. Time spent slaving over the stove of appellation is time well spent.

    There’s a great episode of QI with Stephen Fry where they riff on the implications of the name “Alan”, incidentally.

  4. Hilary
    January 24, 2013

    I can’t add much to the comments that have already been made, except to say thanks for this lively and interesting piece, Rosy – I really enjoyed the insights. I can relate as well to the problem with some names in the baggage they acquire. One person’s heroine is another’s worst friend at school.

    Oh, and I have lived all my life barely tolerating my own name, because it was so often misunderstood and mangled, and it’s a boy’s name anyhow, and now I live for very, very rare glimpses of it in fiction ….

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This entry was posted on January 23, 2013 by in Uncategorized.



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