Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Sharon by any other name would smell as sweet

Inventing the name of a character for your novel or script is always problematic. Names, whether we like it or not, conjure up images in our heads; choose the wrong name and you invite confusion in the minds of the readers. I realise that this is fundamentally wrong; that we should not assign attributes and character traits to certain names. Let's face it, it's verging on stereotyping of the kind that we've outlawed in the areas of race, colour, sex, faith, disability and sexual preference. But it's there, whether we like it or not. Kevin-ism and Tracey-ism is rife. Part of me - the anti-establishment, smash the system part of me - wants to buck the trend. I want a heroic figure called Colin or Dierdre or Gilbert or Doris who isn't a 'nerd who does well'. I want to create pathetic, cringeworthy characters called Jack, Jane, Harry and Raquel. I wonder what a prospective publisher would say if I submitted a book where all the names were 'wrong'?

When outgoing Dr Who producer Russell T Davies wanted to revive the series, he needed a new companion for the eponymous Time Lord. He cast Billie Piper and he called her Rose. Pretty. English. Colourful. Romantic. He didn't call her Sharon or Colleen or Vicky. They're all perfectly respectable, nice names. But they didn't foster the image that Davies wanted for the character. And when he created his omnisexual time agent - later to make John Barrowman a star in his own right - did he ever once consider calling him Captain Derek? No. It was Captain Jack Harkness, a good solid heroic name. Jack conjures up visions of lantern-jawed airmen and brave sea captains. The name Harkness is perfect too. It has a mix of sharp and jagged back-of-the-throat voiceless velar plosives with a soft and sexy sibilant flourish at the end. In saying his name, Jack is always left pouting.

Flint. Clay. Black. Stark. Fox. Kane. All good, solid, monosyllabic heroic names. Snape. Fowl. Hyde. Glore. Grimes. Coward. All baddies or weasels. D'arcy. Quentin. Fanshaw (sometimes extraordinarily spelled 'Featherstonehaugh'). Giles. Percy. Ffolkes. Fops to a man. Piggins. Bunter. Flashman. Wooster. Waddle. Bender. The comic relief.

J K Rowling didn't call her boy wizard Nigel Philpotts. No, it was Harry Potter. His slightly less-brave comedy sidekick was Ron Weasley (with the brilliant middle name of Bilius). Harry's posh, clever female chum is Hermione Granger. The names are perfect. And look how Rowling sums up the characteristics of each Hogwarts' school house just by their names: Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff. You'd know, without ever reading the books, which is the 'evil' house, which is the strong, which is the brave and which is the house for the bumbling and mediocre.

And how many times have you heard the name Carter used for heroic figures? Is it some race-memory thing of hardy men driving wildly about the country in charge of big, powerful horses? It's almost become a cliche now. There was Michael Caine's character in the seminal 1971 Britflick Get Carter. There's Samantha Carter in Stargate SG1. There was John Carter of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs' sword-wielding, maiden-snogging star of the Barsoom Chronicles. Alan Carter was the beefy Australian space pilot in Gerry Anderson's Space 1999. Edison Carter was the intrepid reporter who became computer-generated TV star Max Headroom. There was even an indie band called Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine. And for us Brits, there will always be Dennis Waterman's put-upon detective sergeant in 1970s hard-hitting cop show The Sweeney. How many times did we hear his boss, Jack Regan (another great hero name) shout 'Carter!!' A few years ago, there was a one-off Channel 4 comedy special highlighting the comic talents of the brilliant Jane Horrocks. The predictably named Never mind the Horrocks never made it to a series, but there was a fantastic sketch starring the lady herself, Martin Clunes and David Haig about a roadside recovery company a bit like the AA, RAC or Green Flag. The sketch was all high drama as if we were watching a top cop show and I distinctly remember that Clunes' character - a 'maverick who didn't play by the book but got results' - was always summoned with a cry of 'Carter!'

So, like it or not, we do have to think about names when we write. And it will be a brave man or woman who calls their hero Gaye Bumbershoot or Farquhar Piles.*

How about you all out there? What are your favourite names?

Oh, and if you ever need inventive or bizarre names, just check your email junk folders. Spammers obviously use some kind of random name generator to send out their shite and this week I've had mail (mostly about increasing the size of my member) from such characters as Zvonimir Hobbs, Boot Ho-Ming, Pedro F Spencer, Boniface Helmke, Gay Gildersleeve (excellent name!), Tomislav Hartwiger, Kort Nina, Lincoln Spud and the inspired Biff Geronimo. I must write a story involving Biff Geronimo.

I'll leave you with a clip from Never mind the Horrocks in which Jane plays a 1950s BBC children's TV host. I laughed so hard a little bit of wee came out.

*I apologise if you are called Gaye Bumbershoot or Farquhar Piles. I'm sure that you are, in fact, very very brave. You must be to live with names like that.


Debby said...

The clip was funny.

Okay. Now you cock your head and give a LONG questioning look at your computer and then smile and say "Goooooood!"

See? Funny every time!

Stevyn Colgan said...

I for one will be singing the marching song all day. x

Janet said...

Favorite names? Let me think of a few...

Wolf Blitzer (of CNN fame)comes to mind immediately!

A former colleague in Paris whose first name was "Sandrine". It remains one of my favorite female first names.

Storm Field (weatherman on TV in the US - and I THINK [???] it's his real name.

A high school classmate in the US named Wayne Outhouse. When I went back to Illinois for our 10-year reunion, he had changed his name to "Wayne Stevens". (I wonder why...)

A now-deceased friend of mine named Penelope Anastasia Newberry.

As for my own name, I've never really liked "Janet" very much. And my (English) husband is "John". Yes, much to the amusement of everybody, we are indeed "Janet & John"!


Stevyn Colgan said...

Janet and John! Brilliant! I once knew a couple called Wayne and Jane, bless 'em. I went to school with a Janet Crapp, a Charlie Bucket and a David Davies, and I worked with a Fergus McCorgaray, a Farquhar Murray and a Ben Dover. But my favourite name was a chap I met in the comics trade called Constant Tedder. What a fab name. x

Stevyn Colgan said...

Oh, and a friend of mine tells me he knew a Wayne Kerr - poor sod - and a Geoff Leopard!

Chris Hale said...

I remember reading a few years ago a list of names from (I think) genuine American birth registration records. I can unfortunately only recall a couple of them - William Thrower Fitts and Anne Trout Blinks. However, I do also remember a TV programme from the sixties called "Nice Time" that held a competition for the most bizarre or unusual name, the prize being a nicely polished brass plate with the moniker inscribed thereon. The outright winner was Christopher Columbus Platt.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Chris - Last Christmas there was a great book released called 'Potty, Fartwell and Knob' which was just like you say - a list of dreadful name sinflicted upon Brits throughout history gleaned from birth certificates and such like. I laughed a lot.

Janet said...

Stevyn, I thought of another candidate for you as I drove home from work.

Houston had a famous wealthy family named "Hogg". The daughter in the family was named "Ima" (pronounced EYE-ma). So, that means she was "Ima Hogg". See

Many Houstonians tell the story that Ima had a sister named "Ura Hogg", but that's urban myth.


Stevyn Colgan said...

Fantastic! I do have an excellent mate called Ptolemy Elrington (and have blogged about him a couple of times). And I once shared a house with a chap called Timothy Haythornthwaite. It took about a minute to say his name. x

Me said...

Oh my god - you have now told the world of your bladder issue - I quote - I laughed so much a little wee came out - NEVER admit your pelvic floor is wrecked. Not when you are days from fame - tut - get pads, get those squeezes done and above all get used to editing wee talk OUT!

Debby said...

I went to school with a girl named Candy Kane. Probably the funniest thing I ever saw though was when the terrorists tried to make one of your airports a drive through. The investigating officer was Crispin Black. I nearly fell off my chair laughing. It is not at all mid-eastern, but is that not the most perfect name for a suicide bomber?

Stevyn Colgan said...


Anonymous said...

Oh I have laughed, but not leaked!
Wonderful post and fun comments. I worked with a Gaye Raisin and an Olive Green some years ago - how we used to laugh when they answered the phone and dealt with the reactions of the callers.

There is of course the recent story of a little girl in New Zealand that takes the cake. Her name was "Talulah Does The Hula In Hawaii". It's true, it's on my blog and google!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Rob - Some parents are so unthinking ... like the parents of 1980s chubby falsetto crooner Christopher Cross (Chriss Cross? Come on ...) and Mr and Mrs Green who called their daughter Teresa ... but Talulah doe sthe Hula in Hawaii? Bad parents. Naughty parents. Is this a form of child cruelty?

Tess Kincaid said...

Seymour Butts was always a favorite when my kids were growing up. I had a high school history teacher named Ben Dover. Seriously. Another one that comes to mind is an old neighbor lady named Grossie Lumpkins.

Oh...I see you already have a Ben Dover...popular name in the Dover family!

Chris Hale said...

When we were registering No.1 daughter's birth some years ago, the registrar mentioned a Mr. and Mrs. Martin who had decided to christen their progeny Aston. The curious thing is that they had apparently never heard of the car...