Monday, 3 November 2008


As requested, a brief discussion about naming characters.

It’s a weird one. At one level, naming characters is fairly trivial. What your character is called doesn’t really affect the story all that much. I’m a firm believer in the theory that if you can remember the name of the lead character in an action film, the makers have done something wrong (Broken Arrow takes this to the extreme of having the audience find out the names of the male and female leads as the last lines of the movie).

For long running characters, it seems to be more important. There’s clearly a resonance to ‘Sherlock Holmes’ or ‘Dracula’ that must be, in part, because their names are so distinctive. Would Kylie Minogue smell so sweet if she’d been called something less unusual, something that didn’t sound like a team in the UEFA cup? I’d still fancy a sniff, I think. Some of this is clearly just our familiarity, rather than because they’ve got weird names – you can’t really get more ordinary names than Elizabeth Taylor, Bruce Willis or Richard Burton.

‘Hardy and Laurel’ sounds discordant, but there’s no particular reason why, it’s just that we’re used to it being the other way round. Other things are cultural. The name ‘Kevin’ in the US is Costner and Kline and Bacon. In the UK, it’s still Gerbil.

Other names are just at hand. The name ‘Dalek’, famously – if, almost certainly, fictitiously – emerged when Terry Nation saw a phonebook that ran DAL-EK (or DAL-LEK). The most famous example of that is probably James Bond. Ian Fleming had an ornithology book by a ‘James Bond’ on his shelf. Um … I’m probably not going to help my case that I’m not a James Bond fanboy by pointing out that that’s why Pierce Brosnan poses as an ornithologist in Die Another Day. Er, or by noting that I have a first edition of James Bond’s book. Elsewhere, Fleming used the names of friends and acquaintances – not always amusing them in the way that he hoped.

I named a character in Emmerdale after a friend, once … and then (after I’d left the show) the character was revealed to be a golddigging ex-prostitute. Oops. Hilariously, when I tried to name a character ‘Mark Clapham’ I was warned not to use any more joke names. This, I think, might have been the very episode where Gareth Roberts introduced a character called Roger Blake.

It’s very hard to find an ‘ordinary name’ (this a person called ‘Lance Parkin’ speaking of course … people always confuse me with Lars Pearson and Lawrence Miles, making Warlords of Utopia, - written by me, published by Lars, edited by Lawrence – like some weird Three Doctors type special). The temptation is always to go weird and Pythonesque – Celia Molestrangler, that kind of thing. One of the things Vic and Bob always used to do so well was find ordinary names for their characters. A talking Labrador was ‘Greg Mitchell’. Douglas Adams managed to have characters called Arthur Dent and Zaphod Beeblebrox in the same scene.

There are practical considerations – on the whole, you want to avoid characters with similar names, just so the audience don’t get confused. You want to avoid libeling anyone (Barbara Cartland got very offended by Fatherland, when she learned she was still writing romances in a parallel universe where the Nazis won).

You want the names to be nice and memorable, to suit the characters without going the Restoration comedy route that would have seen Jack Harkness called something like Roger Proudcock.

So … how do I come up with my names? A lot of the time, characters just grow into their placeholder name. This has happened to me with pets in the past, and I suspect it’s the power of the label – soon, they’ve ‘become’ that name.

The names in mine usually mean something, even if it’s something trivial. All the names in my Big Finish play Davros are from Diff’rent Strokes, for example. The ones in The Dying Days are all place names from The War of the Worlds. I often use vaguely punny names, and don’t explain them – in Father Time, Ferran is a corruption of Ferdinand, for example, and Klade is an anagram.

The Eyeless has quite a small cast. A lot of the names are short, almost fragments of other names, because the planet is small and broken. This isn’t some code to break or anything, and I hope now I’ve said this, it’s not distracting, but – for example - there’s a character ‘Jeffip’ who I originally pictured as being sort-of played by David Bowie. His name’s a mashed up version of ‘Phillip Jeffries’, the character Bowie played in Fire Walk With Me. In the event, I heard Bowie was in season four, so Jeffip ended up played by someone else. Regular readers of mine will be able to work out who. Regular viewers will note that Bowie didn’t show up in season four. ‘Gyll’ is meant to be reminiscent of ‘Gyllenhaal’. The planet Arcopolis is basically a city of Arcologies, if that’s not a contradiction in terms, but the word also echoes with Ark and Arc and Arcadia.

The reason the Eyeless are called that is explained in the book, and it’s not the obvious explanation.


Mark Clapham said...

I like evocative but only semi-meaningful naming schemes, at least partially because I've always been enamored with the way Briggs does that in Dragonfire. So in BPM half the characters are named after universities and the other half are named after major figures in the Russian Civil War. Apart from Scoblow, which is the pre-anglicisation family name of a friend of mine.

Anonymous said...


Thank you very much, and much appreciated!

The time I've thrown ideas of stories around in my head, I've always had trouble coming up with names for characters, places, and things. Given the importance I place on nouns in my appreciation of fiction, that is a bit of a problem. :-)

I noticed you didn't talk about how the names of the Bond Girls may have come about. :-)

There are a few occasions I've come across where the writer uses the character name for some sledgehammer unsubtlety. For example, in the Star Wars book "Shadows of the Empire", a bit-part character was named Benedict Vidkun. Guess what he did! :-)

If you are writing for an unearthly/unhuman character or setting, do you change yout thinking on how you come up with the names? Dou you try to push things towards the more exotic?

Jack Beven

Lance Parkin said...

I remember laughing at an article once that said that Ian Fleming didn't realise that 'Pussy' had another meaning in America, so Pussy Galore was an entirely innocent name.


I'm very proud of the name of one of the girls in my sort-of Bond spoof Trading Futures: 'Penny Lik'. And, from the same book, 'Malady' was someone originally intended to be a recurring Catwomany type nemesis for the Doctor.

As for alien names ... it's an impossible task. You have to go by mouthfeel, I think. Say a name out loud, see if it sounds ridiculous. I do go out of my way to avoid hyphens and apostrophes and the usual cliches, though. Except for a character in Snare, a fan novella I wrote, who was called 'N'Jok', pronounced 'Innjoak'.