Monday, 29 July 2013


(Yes, I know.  It's been months.  What can I say?  I'm still suffering from writers' block.  I most fervently wish it were otherwise.)

The picture above is of a common weed.  As you can see, it is not particularly pretty.  I nonetheless allot it a space in the garden--corner of the fence, near the clematis--where it can flourish undisturbed.  Why?  I discovered that it bears the name of 'enchanter's nightshade'--and how could I eradicate from my garden a plant with a marvellous name like that?

Wildflowers often have wonderful names: 'traveller's joy', 'heartsease', 'viper's bugloss'.  Disappointingly, however, the names don't always seem to fit the plant very well.  Take this one:
It's much more attractive than enchanter's nightshade, but its name is  sneezewort.   If I were writing a story and I wanted to evoke a beautiful meadow, I could not very well describe it as full of sneezewort, toadflax, pignut and ragwort.  It would create the wrong impression--even though all those flowers are exceptionally pretty ones.

Names in books are awkward. They automatically create expectations in the reader.  An action-man hero called 'Nigel' or 'Julian' would be laughed at; romantic heroines are unlikely to be named 'Sue'.  If an author names a character 'Daisy' or 'Buttercup', the girl's either going to be a simple country lass or the author is playing games.

When I'm writing a historical novel I usually compose lists names as I do the preliminary research--subdivided by sex and origin, so that I have a list of, say, 'Roman British Male Names' and 'Roman British Female Names' and 'North African Male Names' and so on; then, when a character appears for the first time I run down my list and pick something that seems to fit.  Often I discover that another character who appears later fits that name better, and then I have to go back and rename the first one.  (When I started writing, this was a matter of checking and retyping: 'Find and Replace' is ever such a nice command!)  Sometimes a character is hard to name.  I once wrote the first chapter of a book with the main character and first person narrator written as *** because I couldn't make up my mind what to call him.  As for books themselves--either they have a name almost from the moment they're conceived, or I can't think of a title at all, and end up exchanging suggestions with the publishers.

Of course, the most important task of naming is one most of us do at some point:  naming a new baby.  The rules to that, however, are very different to those that govern the naming of a character in fiction.  You don't worry about fictional characters being bullied at school: you may even assign that fate to them, as part of fleshing them out.  Babies are much closer to the heart.