Wednesday Word Tangle: Wackford, Bathsheba, Beguildy: Why a good name is the best gift you can give your protagonist

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

Character names are important.

At their most basic they must be credible: probably best not to name a middle-aged accountant living in a suburb of modern day Leeds whose having an affair with his son’s primary school teacher Bumbletuke Humpty-Bump. That may sit well in A Christmas Carol, but it won’t do on the darts team of the Dog and Duck.

At best they’re shorthand, communicating in a few syllables something of the character, a boiled down essence of their personality. I’ve talked about preconceptions on this blog before – it’s okay, we all have them – but they aren’t just confined to the clothes someone wears or their looks: they extend to names too.

If you read a newspaper article about a man called Gary who’d been caught speeding, you’d have a very different chap in mind from one named Sebastian. It doesn’t mean one is more likely to speed than the other, but you wouldn’t expect Sebastian to have been brought up on the local Council Estate – but Gary … possibly.

Rightly or wrongly, we associate certain names with certain types of people.

Ever noticed how many heroes are called Jack? From the dandy charmer Sparrow, through the doom-laden Bauer, to the kick-ass Ryan, when your main protagonist is called Jack you can expect guns, explosions, fist fights and a body count that’s through the roof. Jacks know how to look after themselves.

Today’s Wednesday Word Tangle is not dedicated to your Jacks, your Garys or your Sebastians. But to the more unusual, the peculiar – the downright inventive.

  • From Precious Bane by Mary Webb: Wizard Beguildy, Jancis Beguildy.

The wizard is a con man and a trickster, while his daughter Jancis is attractive in a brainless sort of way, which makes them both ‘beguiling’ – ‘to deceive or trick’ , ‘to charm and fascinate’.

In the Bible, Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, was seduced by King David and mother of King Solomon. Did Hardy choose the name intentionally to convey to his Bible-literate readership a little of Bathsheba’s future man trouble? Then there’s Gabriel Oak. Why did Bathsheba not know to marry this guy from the start? He’s half angel, half reliable, deep rooted stock – as English as cream teas and an obsession with the weather. I would’ve been ordering a dress just on learning his name.

  • From the Harry Potter books: J.K. Rowling’s devised some cracking names for her characters, so many it’s hard to choose just a few but …

Albus Dumbledore: ‘dumbledore’ is an English dialect word for a bumblebee – love the name just for that. Then there’s Draco Malfoy: ‘draco’ can mean dragon and Draco was also an Ancient Greek lawgiver with some extreme ideas of justice. A perfect combination for a baddy. Lastly, Severus Snape: his first name sounds like ‘severe’, surname makes me think of snakes and ‘snipe’ (‘to criticise unpleasantly’) something Snape’s very good at.

You can’t have a list of character names without mentioning the king of weird character names.

  • From A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: Ebenezer Scrooge: a dour, Biblical beginning, then a surname that sounds a bit like ‘screw’, which is apt.

‘Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!’ A Christmas Carol

  • From Nicholas Nickleby: Wackford Squeers – sadistic Yorkshire schoolmaster at Dotheboys Hall  who regularly ‘whacks’ his students.

And before you dismiss Dicken’s character names as comical and ridiculous, bear in mind that parents called their kids some very odd names during the Victorian period ‒ Friendless Baxter and One Too Many Gouldstone being but two genuine examples.

  • From The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien: Bilbo Baggins: oh, just because it sounds great, doesn’t it?

I could go on and on but I’m not going to.

What’s your favourite character name? And here’s a challenge for those who fancy having a go. Choose from one of the following and come up with a fitting character name to share with the group:

  • A burglar with a love of horticulture.
  • A cross-dressing policeman.
  • A serial killing teacher… Or share one of your own devising 🙂

15 thoughts on “Wednesday Word Tangle: Wackford, Bathsheba, Beguildy: Why a good name is the best gift you can give your protagonist

  1. Ooh, you’ve thrown down a gauntlet! Let’s see what I can do in a jiffy …
    A burglar with a love of horticulture? If male: Willy Jekyll (known to the Scottish brethren in his plant-thieving confraternity as Stinkin’ Billy). If female, Ermintrude Arbor.
    A cross-dressing policeman? Hilary Andress.
    A serial killing teacher? 1. Stuart Carver. 2. Peter Murdoch-Scholes.

    Bilbo? As well as sounding great I think it’s related to the 16th-century stabbing sword formerly manufactured in Bilbao — highly appropriate for someone with a razor-sharp wit where riddles are concerned as well as the wielder of Sting.

    Dickensian names (1): I remember from my somnolent times in A-level History classes a Civil War Puritan called Praisegod Barebones, so Dickens didn’t have a monopoly on odd-sounding names. And there are all those virtuous female names — Faith, Hope, Charity, Verity, Felicity and the like — which were supposed to inculcate their essences to the bearers, and which (blush, blush) Rowan Atkinson famously alluded to in his mock classroom registration:

    Dickensian names (2): Finally, elsewhere we’ve had a brief discussion of the names in the Gormenghast trilogy; sometime I hope to extend that in a post of my own. Names like Steerpike, Groan, Nannie Slagg, Swelter and Titus himself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! That’s amazing. Thanks for taking part in the challenge so enthusiastically. I love Stinking Willy Jekyll – stinking, presumably, because of his love of good horse manure on his roses. My grandad used to run out onto the street with his shovel when a horse went past – I’m sure Willy would do the same.
      Yes, I’ve heard of Praisegod Barebones – he was the chap they named the Barebones Parliament after, wasn’t he? Thanks for the Rowan Atkinson link – I haven’t seen that in ages. No one else could deliver lines like that.
      Ever watched Horrible Histories? They did a great sketch about bizarre Victorian names – all true, apparently.

      Some great names from Gormanghast – I’ll look forward to reading your post.
      Thanks again for taking part.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Huckleberry Finn, Holly Golightly, Jay Gatsby, Jane Eyre, Pecola Breedlove – are a few that come to mind

    A burglar with a love of horticulture. – Sebastian Thumb (an elegant cat burglar in London at the turn of the 20th century)
    A cross-dressing policeman – Ashton Rose
    A serial killing teacher – Thomas Knight

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jenn, what brilliant suggestions! Pecola Breedlove is a brilliant name. I’ve never read The Bluest Eyes – do you recommend it? And the other suggestions too. Holly Golightly is such a great name, especially for a lady of her profession. And I always had a soft spot for Jane Eyre, especially as my mum’s family name was Ayres – not quite the same, but close enough when you’re in your teens and reading your first Bronte!
      Love Sebastian Thumb – absolutely perfect for the character. Greenfingered and with a light touch. You should definitely write a short story about him 🙂
      Thanks for taking part.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes I highly recommend anything by Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye is not a light read, but the message is powerful.

        Glad you like my character names! Great post!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks Jenn. I knew Toni Morrison was highly thought of, but it’s hard to know where to start with a author you’re new to, isn’t it? I’ll make a point of searching her out. And do let me know if you use Sebastian Thumb in a story – I’d look forward to learning more about him 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh I love this post! I am going to have to have a think about the names I’d chose.
    I have had this conversation with a friend who also write and choosing the characters names is always an interesting process. Sometimes they name themselves and other times I struggle.
    My favourite character names come from the classic To Kill A Mockingbird…. Atticus Finch! Boo Radley! Scout! What perfect names!
    Kat x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ta, love. Yes! Great names in Mockingbird. I could’ve gone on and on in this post – George R.R. Martin’s good at choosing names, I think, and Douglas Adams – Zaphod Beeblebrox! Too many great names to name 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Should have mentioned a bit of trivia I unearthed a few years ago. While most of the Harry Potter characters have apposite names, carefully chosen, there’s more to the anecdote that the character and name of Harry himself came to Jo Rowling while she was on a train journey. Somewhere online there is a list of her contemporaries when she was at a primary school near Bristol, and in the class below her (I think that’s right) were two brothers, twins probably, with the surname of … Potter.

    Sadly neither of them was called Harry.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting. Something swimming in her subconscious, no doubt. A bland name for such and unusual boy – compared to the other witchy folk in the books. But that makes him more normal, more easy to identify with – more easy for any of us to think ‘What if I’ve got a hidden identity?’ Look out for letters down the chimney! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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