Tuesday, 21 October 2008

The naming of names

When I was at school and first discovered I had to write (it can be a bit of an obsession), I mostly wrote fiction. Though I'm now primarily writing non-fiction, I'm still working on that fiction side. One thing I find particularly tricky is the names of characters.

It should be easy. Just pull a few random names out of a hat, perhaps pick a few surnames out of the phone book and you're away. But somehow, it doesn't work like that. Apart from anything else, some names have a particular resonance.

I've just finished re-reading The Difference Engine, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's excellent steam-punk what-if about a Victorian Britain run using Babbage's mechanical computers. Apart from a rather hasty, tacked-on ending, it is brilliant, and I love the fictional Victorian names, often attached to products. There's something solidly of the period about a Cutts-Maudslay carbine, for example.

Of course, it's partly association. If you take a modern product-linked name like Dyson, it might seem this couldn't seem at all old fashioned, even though it has some earlier connections. (Is James Dyson related at all, I wonder to the physicist Freeman Dyson or Freeman's dad, the excellent church composer George?). But if you detach 'Dyson' from its modern connotations and attach it, say, to the 'Dyson Patent Steam Eradicator' or whatever, it does take on a period feel.

Even so there are definitely names that work for a particular book and names that don't. I'm not sure if there's any magical technique for determining the right names, or just trial and error. I know, for instance, that for me, whimsical names really don't work. I hate it in Dickens, it's the worst part of J K Rowling's books and though they both get away with it because of other aspects of their writing, it's an unnecessary irritation.

Without doubt, the naming of names has and always will have a certain significance, and should never be underestimated as a challenge.

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