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’.
- From Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy: Bathsheba Everdene.
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 🙂