Wednesday, 17 April 2013

What's In A Name?

How often do you hear people saying that they are going to see the new Brad Pitt movie or the new film with Tom Cruise? Quite often, I imagine. You see, a lot of the time, people will view a movie solely on the identity of its star regardless of whether they even know what the film is about. When we go to the movies, we place more emphasis on the actors behind the characters than on the actual characters themselves.

Look at any poster for a Hollywood movie and you will see how much it differs from a book cover. It is quite common for books to not feature any characters on their covers at all and when they do they are usually veiled in shadow or only partly seen (although some badly designed efforts using stock photographs ignore this trend - see previous entry "Cover Story"). For the most part the appearance of literary characters is left entirely to the reader’s imagination (with a little help from the author).

Whereas, if a movie has a major star in it, the studio will make sure that their face is front and centre of any promotional material and the star's name will often appear more prominent than the title of the movie itself. Vanilla Sky is an excellent example of this. All that the potential viewer has to go on before watching the movie is a close up portrait of Tom Cruise and the movie's title, which is not exactly indicative of plot, yet the film was a massive hit. Why? Because Tom Cruise was in it of course, And whenever people talk of that film they will always refer to the lead character as, you've guessed it; Tom Cruise. Does anyone who saw that film even remember the character's name? (David something, I think).

This brings us back to the content of a book. A novel can sometimes get away with giving its lead character an everyman name for the familiarity and trust that the reader will accord to such a name. The principal protagonist in my debut is simply, Matt and it serves the story well. If you want to convey that the people that you are writing about are ordinary people thrust into an extraordinary situation, feel free to use common names. However, if you want a particular character to really stand out and be known for their name, you cannot rely on just hiring a big movie star to do all your back story for you. This is where writers need to get creative.

Sherlock Holmes, Humber Humbert, Hannibal Lecter, Ebeneezer Scrooge and countless others are all interesting and unique names that occur in the world of literature, but not in the real world, yet we accept them just as naturally as we would John Smith or Jane Smith. And bizarrely, the opposite can also be true in literature, where any character named John Smith or Jane Smith would appear too generic to be believable to a reader. Of course, if every character had a unique name then none would stand out, so generic or "typical" names are a necessity. Yet, choosing a “generic” name for a minor character can often be more difficult than naming the lead. They cannot simply be made up as this will show in the quality of the writing. Every character has to be believable and therefore every character has to have a back story, even if it is one that is never told.

Some authors hide subtle clues to a characters nature, which is particularly useful if they are too minor to justify a lengthy back story. If you want a character to be weak, give them a weak name. If you want a character to be trustworthy, give them an honest name and so on. But even then, we have to use such devices sparingly as if all of the characters are walking cliches then the story will not be believable, which brings us back to the problem of naming minor characters. They have to sound generic, but not like you have simply made them up on the spot.

 Different writers have different ways of going about this. My own process for naming characters has evolved over time. For my first novel The Outback, I played it safe. Mostly, I did use fairly generic names that fitted with the personalities and origins of the characters in question. Whilst not basing my characters directly on people that I knew or had been acquainted with (big legal minefield there), I did use people that I knew as inspiration.

The book contains characters of many nationalities and so I used the names of my Irish friends for the Irish characters (mixing first and last names so as to avoid an exact match), I actually knew several Jonas's from Germany and a Hiro from Japan. I must stress that these characters where not based upon the people that they were named for, but it does give an authenticity to the book in that the names are all real and natural. It also helped me to picture in my head how the characters look. This is extremely important for a writer (and ironically, here you can cast a movie star in your novel. Just do not mention the name of the star that you are picturing for the character. Not even Dan Brown can get away with this and he has tried*). You have to have a clear and precise image of every character otherwise they will not come across as believable at all. After all, you cannot describe something that you have never even seen yourself.

There is one character from my novel that does have a standout name and that is of course, Rhett Butler. Many may jump to the obvious conclusion that I had taken the name from the heroic character from Gone With the Wind and flipped it by applying it to the story's villain. Although, I do reference that classic movie in the book, the inspiration actually came by the same process as above. I really did have a farm boss named Rhett when I worked in Western Australia. He was also somewhat of a local football star, but unlike Rhett the villain, the Rhett that I knew was a thoroughly decent bloke. The surname was taken from that of an old flatmate from when I lived in Sydney (sorry Natalie!). When I noticed that this name was the same as the Clark Gable character, I thought of changing it, but then decided to keep it. I am a big fan of irony.

For my second novel; Stealing Asia, I used a similar technique, but with much more exotic sounding names; Barrett and Clay being my favourites. For my third novel and beyond I have developed a tendency for using anagrams and hiding subtle references to my inspirations. The books are not yet available, so I will not give anything away, but I will just say that I have started to have a bit of fun.

     What's that - you want more?

Okay, I will give a little teaser for the forthcoming Diamond Sky. The plot and style of this story is a big departure from my first two books. A pivotal character is named Jackson Fox. This is the combination of the surnames of both the director and the star of a film that helped inspire aspects of the book. If you can figure out the film, you may figure out what to expect from my novel...

*In his debut novel, Deception Point, Dan Brown actually introduces a character as “[looking] like Halle Berry”.

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1 comment:

  1. I've always had a terrible time naming my characters, as I do my actual novels. I have an old tattered baby name book that I still use...the one thing easier than the internet.