The Naming of Parts

The Naming of Parts

Last Friday I promised to introduce some characters (and I will) but something intervened which seemed a worthwhile detour; the question of names. What intervened was reading a guest blog from Linda Gillard on Roz Morris’s ‘Undercover Soundtrack’ (my unvarying Wednesday habit of the week). In amongst all the music featured by other writers this one was inspired by Philip Glass.

I realised that my belief that I disliked of the music of Philip Glass probably stemmed entirely from his name. Brittle, transparent, unyielding, surface, glitter, glass harmonica, self reflective, sharp, wintry, the voice that shatters…. All come to the mind in that small single word (even though we share a Christian name it does not ameliorate the power of ‘glass’.) I realised I hardly knew the music of Philip Glass and that was the likely reason. John Cage was not much better: imprisoned, restricted, stale, cruel, limed, in need of cleaning. Perhaps it is a poet’s mind, with unending echoes of association. We weave webs from words and find ourselves caught by them. Now that I have really listened to the Glass violin concerto as related and focussed by another’s response to it, I found it incredibly poignant and mesmerising.

So prejudice kept a mind closed.

How relevant might this be to the naming of character parts? How acute an attention ought we to give it?

Did anyone see ‘Enchanted April’ and resonate with Mrs Wilkins saying she hated ‘Wilkins’ with its ‘kins’, its diminutive piggy tail? I so did!

I have always liked my name, Philippa, (Philos, Hippos…a lover of horses) and wonder whether my absorption with horses all my life was caused by it? Of did my mother have prescience? It was very uncommon back then. I only ever met one other. If so, she did not know how many would massacre its ancient Greek beauty by spelling it incorrectly. How many people spell Philosopher with two ‘Ls’? Yet I could never give a character an over familiar name, it would imprison any freedom they might need, and once envisioned characters take on their own life.

The rushing power of names and the harness of them are, for me, almost un-brookable. Does any one else feel this way? When I read a book in which a place name is contrived, unlikely to be in the County in which it is set I immediately distrust the writer’s sensitivity to history or place. J.K. Rowling, a genius with names in Harry Potter, now chooses ‘Pagford’ (slag, hag, tinker, all overwhelm the ‘ford’) for a ‘pretty village’ It does not quite ring true and certainly does not (for me) convey a ‘pretty village’. Too plausible however (like ‘Midsomer’ Murders), becomes merely dull. How to strike the balance between what you as author ‘feel’ in the name and what your readers’ references to it may be? It may be quite the opposite of what we expect.

One of the reasons I love Trollope is because his names are creatively uncompromising, nothing is left unstated: Obadiah Slope is both revengeful Old Testament and yet slippery as an eel, his hypocrisy and self importance all in the name. Mrs Proudie all chins and heaving indignation. Dickens’s Bob Cratchit, scratches on his high stool forever. We can then get on to the nuances of their situation. One could not get away with it now …although I did once try with ‘Geoffrey Mentwell’ ( a benevolent but bumbling retired schoolmaster- managing always to step in it) in a rural TV comedy.

A Christmas Carol
Bent with Service
Conceit personified

I feel that names carry with them all the qualities of those who gave them life before. So much so that naming my daughters was an exercise in bequeathing them conscious associations, hoping their lives would be shaped by their names…all Shakespearean (I wanted them deep-rooted) but with modulated second names to correct extremes. ‘Juliet’ was destined to inspire passion, and retain delightful innocence but I did not want passion lethal so she needed ‘Emma’ (Woodhouse) to correct the balance. In a general way there is something in each that does resonate with their literary forbears. I still wonder how I allocated them and in the right order? Re-incarnation decided and I was just the mouthpiece?

I would be interested to hear the views of others on this, and how they arrive at the names for characters, and what goes into making their choices?

Last week I mentioned a character called Vernon. He is a major character in a novel and has a hot/cold platonic relationship with Claudia. Would anyone start the ball rolling by describing what those names convey to them? Before I flesh them out in interaction? Flash portraits would be great! It would be interesting to discover what degree of congruence there is, and whether the importance I give to it, is justified. I doubt it is a habit I could shed, whatever we might discover.

Author: philipparees

A writer ( mostly narrative poetry) of fiction and non-fiction. Self publisher of fiction and Involution-An Odyssey Reconciling Science to God (Runner-up Book of the Year (2013), One time builder ( Arts centre) Mother of four daughters: Companion of old man and old dog: One time gardener, lecturer, wannabe cellist, mostly enquirer of 'what's it all about', blogger and things as yet undiscovered.

10 thoughts on “The Naming of Parts”

  1. Philippa,

    This is a great discussion. I’m surprised more people haven’t already left comments. A few years ago as my wife and I were studying linguistics, in preparation for translation work, my wife did a study on the consistent and nearly universal correlation between vowel sounds and their associations. The “ee” sound is the smallest and “O” or “aw” the largest with others in between. So little, itty bitty birdies tweet, twitter and peep, while lions roar, and monsters stomp the ground and snort. Consonants also seem to have personality associations.

    I think choosing names of characters should include not only connotations of meaning, but also the sounds of letters. In this respect I pick up on Vernon as perhaps a bit hefty, not the sharpest intellectual, more of a sportsman than an artist or philanthropist, and more likely to be average and desire than to achieve and find fame. Claudia is not slight or diminutive in build, but perhaps with a good figure, she likes chocolate better and coffee better than sauerkraut, owns a cat, appreciates flowers, but doesn’t normally wear lace or pink.

    What fun. Dave.


    1. Thank you gerontificator, for your imaginative contribution, and portraits. I was interested in the analysis of vowels and the emotional connotation of them, whereas Roz Morris goes much more on the ‘look’ on the page. This is now sparking into life and I will be obliged to offer my characters. Thank you for calling


    2. So pleased to have this comment, and the examples of pursed and wide mouthed vowels. Although the sounds of words make greater impact on me than the look of them on the page, as is true of Roz Morris, I probably select more for the image of period, likely background, and evocation of others who carried the name and left their marks upon it. So I can confess that Vernon was chosen because to me it is almost a non-name, periodless, classless, ageless. It has a smear of upper class, but unconvincingly, like a rather well cut coat over worn jeans, and probably found in a charity shop rail. I will let Vernon reveal himself in his own words anon.

      Claudia has a similar anonymity, she could be a product of any European country, elegant and well preserved, and conscious of the power of such things, and the evocation of ‘claws’ has a certain validity for the person she is, not vicious but well defended! I will bring them on stage soon.


  2. Vera. What a wealth of description from words alone. It validates my own supposition that sounds and looks and associations of names is pretty indelible. I will introduce them to you anon. Still thinking of the best way to do it. Many factual details do not tally with those I created but ‘something essential’ does overlap, some quality of atmosphere, sadness in Vernon, tight-lippedness and carefulness in Claudia. I shall bring them together and you can be a fly on the wall. Thank you for giving it so much care and creativity


  3. Philippa here is my rendition of these two types:
    A not so refined man, 45-48, about 5′ 9″, not highly educated, works in car insurance or something, largish nose, square hands, brown hair prematurely graying around the ears, dressed in browns, smokes cigarettes and smells of them, wears brogues, occasionally laughs too loud, likes whiskey but cannot afford black label, meat and potato man, never been to Italy, vaguely dreams of retiring to Spain, likes brassy blondes, can more or less play the piano, been married young, but that did not last very long, no children, respects his mother, does not trust his father, goes to movies regularly, prefers war movies, lives in unkempt apartment, ( would you like his telephone number? I’ll give it to you because frankly I do not like him…).

    Tall, willowy, dark long hair, age 32ish, great deep eyes, soft jaw, earrings, bracelets, reads regularly but mostly detective stories, lives in a city, well kept small flat, types very well and very fast, can ride a horse, secretary job, maybe would have liked to be a nurse, has taken a few vacations on the continent but does not trust the French, has heard that there was a famous Claudia or Clodia in Rome, not sure what it means, dislikes libraries, smokes when nervous, would like men to send her splashy flowers, is sincere, dresses as well as she can afford by checking fashion magazines, owns an up-to-date cell phone with bells & whistles, likes to sleep late, cooks passable meals especially salads, won’t easily give her telephone number to just anybody. …


  4. What an interesting discussion – and glad to have set it rolling with my blog. I love to muse over what a name suggests to me. In fiction we’re lucky enough to keep names inside our heads, the eye-voice that makes them an artwork, a sound that is seen rather than vocalised.
    I choose names for these qualities; how they look on the page, the flamboyance or modesty of their syllables. In my novel I had immense fun with a ponderous character called Richard Longborrow. Uttered out loud that name doesn’t look nearly as much fun as it is when typed in full pompous glory. He wears a bow tie so that he can cultivate the appearance of a surgeon.
    I like the incantatory qualities of a name spelled in full; whenever it is naturally possible I mention my characters by both first and last name. It’s part of their signature on the page.

    I also love inventing place-names. There’s pleasure in inventing a village and giving it the kind of name that suggests it’s been snuggled into a hillside for hundreds of years, worn in like an old boot. I have to confess I rather like Rowling’s Pagford. I haven’t read the book but I like the qualities of the name.
    I never knew you were a horse lover. You might have seen from Facebook that I am too. There is probably a more classical term for it, only I can’t think of it now. My parents called me Rosalind, and when I was old enough to find out that names had meanings I was thrilled to discover Rosalind might come from Hros, an ancient form of horse. My parents had no idea of this, and thought it was all about roses.


    1. Glad to entertain you chez moi, Roz. Thanks so much for calling. I have a Rosalind too and the derivation given by the OD is the combination of hros (as you say horse) and lind (serpent). For me the association is all about that feisty girl in the forest, and I’d say you carry her heritage pretty convincingly.


    2. Another thought: You seemingly ‘see’ the name. I only ‘hear’ it. That might explain why I judge a character more from the sound of their voice then what they look like. A very interesting distinction in response. Thanks for starting the ball rolling


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