Monday, 19 September 2016

Name Game

It won’t be apparent to you at the moment but, once you get your mitts on a copy of my novel, A Murder To Die For, you’ll see that many of the characters sport unusual surnames.  This is no accident. I love uncommon and unusual surnames. And names are important when you’re creating characters. Imagine, for example, if Ian Fleming had decided to name his most famous creation Trevor Lillicrap instead of James Bond. Now, there’s nothing wrong with Trevor Lillicrap; it’s a perfectly respectable name. But if you were writing a spy thriller tomorrow would you call your womanising, hell-raising, licence to kill character Trevor Lillicrap? Or Colin Bamforth? Or Peter Tubby? 

A name can work as a kind of shortcut for the reader. Rightly or wrongly, we associate certain names with certain characteristics and traits. If I write a name – say, Pamela Utterthwaite – you’ll form an impression of what Pamela looks and sounds like. If I call her Nikki Crick or Amelia Courtnay-Huskins you’ll form different impressions. Partly, this is due to a kind of mild synaesthesia, a curious blending of our senses, that affects us all. It means that our brains merge sound and vision. For example, which of these characters is called Bouba and which is Kiki?


Chances are that you’ll have picked the name Kiki for the spiky figure and Bouba for the blobby figure – 99% of people do, wherever they are from in the world and whatever language they speak - because the names ‘sound’ spiky and blobby. Some scientists believe that this facility for ‘seeing’ sounds may have helped to kickstart the evolution of language.

Picking the right names for your characters can be fun. It can also be hugely frustrating when you can't find exactly the right one. One of the main characters in my novel is a retired police officer. I see him as looking a bit like Des Lynam or Sam Elliott and I've spent months agonising over his name. Should he be Hawker or Shunter or Strapper? Should he be Ted, Geoff, Mike or Terry?  At the moment he's Ted Shunter. That may change before publication.

One way to find the right name is to ask your readers. One of the joys of crowdfunding a book is that the author and the people who pledge their support by donating money get to chat. And, it was thanks to just such a chat with a chap called Mark Vent, that I found the perfect name for a group of characters. A Murder To Die For is set at a murder mystery festival in the village where crime fiction writer Agnes Crabbe lived her whole life. Her most famous literary creation is the lady detective Miss Millicent Cutter. And thanks to Mark, I now know that fans of Miss Cutter are called 'Millies'.

When trying to find the right name you can take a kind of nominative deterministic route – picking a name that in some way reflects the person’s character – by creating a killer called Butcher or a sex worker called Gotobed or a torturer called Payne, but that is a little obvious. Or you can reference other people or characters that inspired your character, like Dan Brown did when he named Sir Leigh Teabing in The Da Vinci Code; the name is a semi-anagram made from Richard Leigh and Michael Baigent, the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail;the book that influenced Brown’s plot. And the name of Hugh Laurie’s hugely popular TV character  House is an homage to Sherlock Holmes due to the nature of his deductive reasoning. The character even lives at 221B Baker Street.

Because my book is set in a fictional village in a fictional county that is quite old-fashioned and olde-worlde, I deliberately set out to find lovely old English surnames, particularly ones that aren’t so common these days. And I found some great examples: Tradescant, Wilderspin, Handibode, Nithercott, Gawkrodger. There’s something lovely about the way that three syllables roll off the tongue - there’s a kind of poetry to some names isn’t there?  Horningtop, Cockering, Berrycloth, Pomerance.

Of course, they weren’t all three syllables long; the book also has the names Greeley, Jaine, Febland, Quisty, Sallow, Raynott and many more. They're all uncommon names though; if you're looking for Smiths, Robinsons or Williamses, this isn't the book for you.

Interesting names turn up in all sorts of places: the credits at the end of a TV show or movie; in books and history documentaries; and, occasionally, in person. One particular day in the 1990s, when I was still a policeman, I met two neighbours engaged in a bitter dispute over the position of a garden fence. They were called Boggis and Sparrowcock. What a fantastic buddy cop movie duo they would be! Another source is churchyards. We filmed part of the promotional video for A Murder To Die For in the churchyard of St Botolph’s (another great name) in Bradenham, Buckinghamshire near where I live, and I found these cracking names:


 Christopher Robin St Quintin Wall and Francesca Giovanna Maria Fummi.


Nigel Montagu Finch-Hatton.


Vice Admiral Mortimer Lestrange Silver. 

I also have a particular fondness for names that are pronounced in a way that defies their spelling. It's a lovely British quirk that we pronounce Marjoribanks as ‘march-banks’, Chalmondeley as ‘chum-lee’, and Featherstonehaugh, bizarrely, as ‘fan-shore’. Another famous one is Menzies, which, as this limerick cleverly shows, is pronounced in a most counterintuitive way: 

A lively young damsel named Menzies 
Said 'Do you know what this thenzies?' 
Her aunt, with a gasp, 
Replied: 'It's a wasp, 
And you're holding the end where the stenzies.'

One of my readers, Christopher Richardson, came across the name Eigelsheim, which is, apparently, pronounced as 'eye-sun'.He also told me that: 'A friend of mine had to contact a senior soldier at a local barracks to attend a party for his father. His name was Horseflesh. So he phoned, asked for him, was put through by the receptionist and was greeted with, 'It's hoe-flay goddammit. Hoe-flay!' 

I may make a feature of these kinds of names in a future novel. As it is, my fictional county of South Herewardshire should properly be pronounced as ‘hur-wurd-shur’ and the town of Bowcester, which features in the book, is pronounced as ‘boaster’. 

Have you come across any fantastic names? If so, leave a comment and share them on here. I’d love to hear them. :D

1 comment:

  1. I am Steve Titley, which I have come to terms with over the years. Welcome to use Titley, I think it needs some love. If the Titley character could captain Wolves to win the Champion's League and then beat the Tories into obscurity as leader of the Labour Party; that would be my preference, thanks, Steve.