Saturday, October 20, 2012

What's in a Name?

What's in a Name?
(More thoughts on naming characters)

So anyway, I've been thinking about the question of finding exactly the right name for a character. I mentioned Pansy O'Hara already.

How about Ormond Sacker? And his brilliant friend Sherrinford Holmes? I wonder if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have been such a success with those two. Holmes, probably. "My dear Holmes, this is fantastic!" "Not at all, Sacker."

No, I think Ormond wouldn't have cut it. 

Notoriously, John D. MacDonald had already written, if I recall correctly, three books in a series of Florida thrillers. If they went over, then he planned to continue the series. His beach-bum hero was Dallas McGee.

And as I have explained, on November 22, 1963, "Dallas" became too problematic. The story is that JDM then looked to U.S. Air Force bases for a good name and settled on Travis. It worked like a charm.

Philip Malory could be a detective, but it sounds as though he's from an English country-house mystery. When Raymond Chandler changed his moniker to Philip Marlowe, he scored a hit.

So where do you look for character names? "What to Name the Baby" books and websites help, especially if you have a particular ethnic background in mind. The last name, the family name, though...that can be tough.

Geographic origins are a possible source. Look at a large-scale map of, well, anywhere. You're apt to come up with place names that probably are derived from proper family names: Tackberry Corners. Christian Pass. Bolgeo, TN. Fredericksburg. Cantonville. Sometimes one will click.

Or literary inspiration. Chandler knew he wanted his detective to pay homage to the days of old when knighthood was in flower - Malory is from Sir Thomas Malory, author of Arthurian romances. Marlowe is from Christopher Marlowe, who was killed in either a brawl or a planned assassination (he was a spy).

John Bellairs loved to do that with his books. One features a magician named Prospero ("but not the one you're thinking about"). Another of his characters is Jonathan Van Olden Barnavelt, from the title of a play by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger ca. 1619. Another one: Anthony Monday is named for playwright Anthony Mundy, a contemporary of Shakespeare.

However, the name has to click. It just has to sound right, not almost right. Marion Wayne wouldn't be a great cowboy actor, but John Wayne might. Punchy. One-syllable names tend to have that kind of solid feel for a person of action. Freddie Porter isn't quite right for a successful businessman, nor is Fred, but maybe Frederic Porter would work - especially if he stuffily refuses to recognize any nickname.

Work at it until you're satisfied. As Old Possum told us, the naming of names really is a difficult matter.

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