Tuesday 23 March 2010

Indiana Jones and Stephen Dedalus

I am convinced that a fictional character should have one dull name and one extraordinary name. It doesn't matter which way around.

David Copperfield
Sherlock Holmes
Keith Talent
Indiana Jones
Oliver Twist
Winston Smith
Stephen Dedalus
Luke Skywalker

There are exceptions. A deliberate dullness may pay, and if the book is fascinating the name will be coloured like the dyer's hand. Try to guess the name blanked out in the following interview. I guarantee that you've heard it a thousand times.

I wanted the simplest, dullest, plainest-sounding name I could find, 'BLANK BLANK' was much better than something more interesting, like 'Peregrine Carruthers.' Exotic things would happen to and around him, but he would be a neutral figure — an anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a government department.

The answer will be beneath the line break, so you'll have to click on read more.

There are never any real rules in the world, even the rules of physics break down as you get back before the big bang (gravity was reversed, matter outran light). There are none in writing. The only true laws are those of cricket and those of the Medes and the Persians which did not change. But most real names don't work in realist novels. They seem too studiedly normal: too realistic to be true. I mean... well here's what I mean. I just tried to think up normal first name - thought Geoffrey - normal second name - thought Robinson and then realised that there is a Geoffrey Robinson, he's an MP and he was involved in a scandal and he used to own something-or-another and his name just wouldn't work in a novel. Reality rarely convinces.

But Jeremiah Johnson or Mary Poppins?

Incidentally, Dickens was of course the greatest namer that literature has ever known I have some Dickens names that I doubt you know. You see, the cause of Polish independence was terribly fashionable in Victorian London and Dickens was a member of The Literary Association of the Friends of Poland. He used to go to meetings. But, as he complained in a letter, the meetings were often preposterous with people pretending a knowledge of Polish politics that none of them actually had, the speaker would be

talking about celebrated Polish Women, and saying “but when I mention the hallowed name of Titchibowski – or of Lobski – or of Pastocrontik – or of Sploshock – or of Screweyzlunskifi, that wife and mother” – and everybody professing to roar with enthusiasm at every name, as if they knew all about it!

Have you guessed the name yet? Then click on read more.

It was Ian Fleming talking about the name James Bond. James Bond was the dullest name he could think of, which only goes to show something, but I'm not sure what.

P.S. I once read a (terrible) novel where the names were all normal apart from the main character who was called Horselover Fat, but I got used to it after a few pages.


  1. Elmore Leonard (a ridiculous name, if ever I saw one) insists there are rules of writing; ten of 'em.

    However, you make a very good point (as ever) about names. I know someone who gave her son a normal name and an exotic name so he could choose which to use. I posted on my blog about it (back in July). I shan't post the link because that will look like shameless self-promotion and it doesn't do to presume too much.

    What is your favourite Dicken's name, Inky?

  2. I read a novel where the main character was called Nigel Johnson, with the author's gloss that Nigel is pronounced NIGH-gell, not Ni-jul. My first reaction to this was: isn't that too artsy, too contrived? Then I was like, no, that's actually pretty cool...

  3. And the other thing about names is that they come with BAGGAGE. For example, if you have ever had an unfortunate experience with a Nigel you will have a Pavlovian response to the name.

    I know - logically - that Nigel Havers is the thinking woman's crumpet, but I can only ever view him as a unfortunate experience.

    Choose an exotic name - Everet Lapel springs to mind - and it's unlikely that you'll have had a previous unfortunate experience with a man of that name. Therefore, Everet arrives a fully-formed hero with no baggage; no rucksack, suitcase or small continental wrist purse.

  4. One of the best names I have come across was in Claudia Day's novel 'Stunt':

    "I hear the worm's death cry. And then rapture, worm rapture, rapture in the death hands of Sheb Wooly Ledoux, worm killer, unflinching man, my father.'

    Fabulous novel. Shameless promotion of a Canadian writer.

  5. I might revise your opening statement to say that a character should have at least one unusual name. Two might be allowable but to be memorable one is a must.
    Having said that there are novels where the leading character isn't named at all (e.g. Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes)

  6. Or Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier (unless you think Rebecca and Maxim are really the main characters, with the narrator being so self-effacing she is hardly a character at all - you could make the same thing about Past Imperfect, couldn't you? although not to the same extent perhaps).

  7. Inky, you have two choices:

    A. Hire an amanuensis to deal with your correspondence as it increases in weight and girth (sorry, that slipped in from another less cultured sire) - this is the price of notoriety.

    2. Maintain a dignified silence.

  8. I am a man of undignified silences, but I have spent the afternoon in the British Library ordering up the Abecedarium Anglico Latinum, which for some reason Waterstones doesn't stock.
    I have always considered amanuensis to be a euphemism for catamite.

  9. Multi-tasking could be advantageous, Dogberry.

  10. Albany Fonblanque24 March 2010 at 11:02

    One of the funniest things I saw, in one of the funniest television shows, was a character called "Earnest Hemingway" in "A Very Peculiar Practice".

    Amanuensis/Catamite - there is a subtle difference; one will bend over backwards for you, the other will just bend over.

  11. I think this might have come from a 'Jennings' novel in which the aforementioned and Darbishire are attempting to write a detective story. Anyway, their rule for generating wizard character names is the two syllables / one syllable rule; works for Sherlock Holmes, Winston Smith, David Brent, and, (reversed), John Jennings.

  12. J. Alfred Prufrock - now there's a man who sounds like a stud.