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  • Kate Went

What's in a name?

“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asks in Romeo and Juliet, asserting that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. It would, but does the premise apply to characters in novels? How, for instance, would we regard Heathcliff if Emily Brontё had called him Bertie?

Would Mr Darcy seem quite so romantic if he’d been introduced to us as Mr Satterthwaite?

The matter of names is more complicated than one might think. Trollope signalled the virtues or otherwise of his characters in the names he gave them: Proudie, Bold, Slope, and Dickens came up with some wonderfully appropriate inventions. You don’t see very much of that now, though Pratchett did it and so, in a different way, does Malcolm Pryce. But there is still a tendency to indicate the social standing of the characters by their names.

Apart from what’s appropriate for a character’s background, age and era, one of the biggest influences must be the writer’s perception of names. We all have likes and dislikes which may be governed by obvious influences, but some are inexplicable. And what a name suggests – strength, weakness, honesty, intelligence, nastiness – may be equally inexplicable.

To me some names are spiky and some bitter, some are soft and squishy and some even scary. Perhaps there’s an element of synaesthesia here!

And, though I don’t understand why, two very different names may have the same ‘feel’. For example, in Llantathan a minor character, Becky, started out as Miranda. I changed it to avoid confusion with major character Marina. But it took a while to settle on an alternative which had for me, a similar resonance: a little bit edgy but suggesting fun.

So where did the names of my major characters come from? In the case of Stephanie that was, in part, from my work at university on the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem when a crusader’s lady, Stephanie of Oultrejourdain, caught my imagination. Marina? Long liked, because years ago I was entranced by a Frankie Laine song which featured the name. John Holmes? Here I have to confess that for my clergyman I borrowed the name of a real one. Adam Pembury was never meant to be front line. I needed an archaeologist and he was it – and for some time he didn’t have a name. But, as his presence in the story grew, I tried a few different ones but nothing seemed right. In the end it was another borrowing – the forename of one of my husband’s colleagues, and the surname from an old school story. Impossible now to imagine Adam as anything else.

One worry I used to have was that it’s all but impossible to come up with a name that no-one else has. How awful to been a kind, upstanding person and find that some writer has given the same name as yours to an out and out murdering villain! You can Google, as I have, all my characters’ names and find several of each, with one exception. My nameless character, Adam Pembury has, apparently, no real-life parallel. If there is one, do let me know!

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