Tuesday 17 February 2015

What's in a name?

A writer friend of mine asked us to edit a piece of prose she had written. Her characters were all of Indian descent, but she had taken the conscious decision to anglicise their names so that her intended audience, UK readers, could pronounce them, and therefore relate to them more. This got me thinking about names, are they that important? Should we have to panda to the whims of the few who find pronunciation difficult? What makes us choose our characters names.

I once sent in a chapter of my book to an editing group. I had a problem with one of my characters. I mentioned that the reason I wasn't 'getting Dana,' was because I had changed her name. When I first wrote the piece she was called Sharon. Crime writer Sharon Bolton wrote under the name of S. J. Bolton because she felt stigmatised by her name, and wondered whether anyone would read a novel by a writer called Sharon. Sharon was a stereotype for a working class woman, she decided to end the prejudice and now calls herself Sharon Bolton. I read this and decided that if I kept the name Sharon I was perpetuating the prejudice. However, I wasn't getting a clear picture of the character with her new name. So are the names we chose for our characters significant to how we, the writer, perceives them?

I have a picture in my head of my characters, I temporarily lost that picture when I changed the name of my character, but I made a conscious decision not to change it back, and now I can’t see the character with any other name but Dana. I have come to realise that names are very important.

I feel that It is essential that we give characters suitable names. An upper class woman wouldn't be called Gladys, and a working class woman wouldn't be called Phyllida. The same is true with male names, Sid is typically a working class name, whereas Rupert is definitely upper class.

Names fall out of fashion, popular names change with each generation. These days it is more common to call a young girl Lacie, or Gemma than Doreen or Edna. An old man is more likely to be called Cyril or Herbert, than Kyle or Dylan.

I feel that readers have certain expectations regarding names, I certainly did when I read my friends story. I felt quite disappointed that she had anglicised her characters names. For me it ruined the flow of the story as I had to ask her how they fitted in to the narrative.

I do agree with her that some people will mispronounce names, but I feel that she shouldn't have to choose a name that she thinks a reader will be comfortable with. Readers like to be taken out of their comfort zone. Besides, a lot of people can’t pronounce Dalziel (Dee El), but did that stop Reginald Hill giving that name to his fabulous protagonist.


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