Wednesday, February 5, 2014

What's in a name?

Janet Woods

What’s in a name?
            In the application of story characterization – plenty.
            I’ll start with my own names. Janet (meaning in the grace of God) and Angela (meaning angel-like). Okay, so Janet is not a bad little name, it’s comfortable and safe, easy to spell and pronounce.
            Angela is quite a pretty name if one desires to be compared to an angel. I headed in the other direction. Perhaps it was wishful thinking on my mother’s part, though she wasn’t religious. Sorry mum . . . not this Janet!
            I think my parents were influenced by their workplace. Dad was a chauffeur and my mother a housemaid. They, and my grandfather (who’d been the head coachman for the same family before) worked for gentry, a family who made most of their fortune out of the industrial era manufacturing and selling gas appliances.
            Both my grandfather and my father drove a Rolls Royce for the same family, with my father inheriting the job. (sorry, I just had to name drop!).
            I’ve always found that, in writing, expectations come with names.
            Picture Janet as a trusted housekeeper in cap and apron wearing muted shades, the keys to the stately home hanging from the chatelaine at her waist as she hovers, quietly dependent and unobtrusive in the background. Being directed about their work by the loyal Janet will be the Millies, Mollies, Nellies, Fannies, and Bessies. They’ll be doing the dirty work, running around, raking ash from the coals, black-leading the grates, washing the bedpans and making the dust fly. Most likely they would chatter about boys and be generally frivolous as they flirted with the delivery boys and stable hands. They might even flirt with the son of the house, after he’d swallowed a couple of snifters of brandies.
            The handsome sardonic hero and heir is William Carstairs. His mates address him as Big Willie with an exchange of winks and schoolboy chuckles. His sisters call him Little Willie on account of them being older than him and because they are virgins and totally ignorant about willies of any type. They don’t even know what virginity is until they lose it, by which time it’s too late to complain, not that they would now they’ve discovered the secret of life.
            If the sisters were unmarried as well as unfrocked she’d be called something exotic, like Claudia or Jasmine, Rita, Carmen of Lola. Older spinsters would have virtuous names and I sometimes think they were destined to be spinster aunts since birth . . . Patience, Prudence, Charity or Hope. The heroine might be Adelaide, Charlotte or Caroline.    
            Heroes’ names come in several styles. Solid and steady, heroic or unusual, try these standards for endurance. They are always in fashion. Edward, George, Samuel, Thomas, William, John, Roger . . .
            Roger? That one might be a bit dicey. You know the Roger-the-lodger jokes and the occasional vulgarity men use regarding the name, I expect. Let me just say that the meaning of the name Roger is “Famous with a spear.” That aside, one of the best and most beautiful books I’ve ever read was “Through a Glass Darkly.” It was written by Karleen Koen and first published in 1986. Her troubled hero was Roger who struggled to define his own sexuality within a marriage to a woman who cared deeply for him.
            The solid and steady hero always works well because the names endure. You need only look up name lists for any given era to see that. My personal favorite is for hero types that are easy to spell. Alex, Leon, Benedict, Nick.
            I also like unusual Celtic names. The trouble with them is although they look good on paper they’re usually a devil to get your tongue round. My latest use of a Celtic name is Tighe. I was often asked how it was pronounced. To the best of my knowledge it’s Tie. However, in case the enquirer is a professor of the Celtic language, I usually ask, “How would you pronounce it?”
            Some say Tiggy. Some Tigehee. Some prefer Tig-he, and an Irish man said “I T ” and laughed. Old joke, I know, but you’ve got to love the Irish sense of humour!
            So what’s in a name? There are quite a lot of points to consider if you want the right name for your characters, one that is suitable for their position in life as well as providing a compatible union with the heroine’s name. Sharon and Darryn? Elizabeth and Edgar? Nah, I don’t think so! My characters nag me if they don’t feel comfortable with their names. Luckily we have a search and change function, which means we can try out different combinations.
            Now back to Janet. Had she been a housekeeper in the historical past, she would have been referred to as Mrs. Woods, whether married or not.
            As it happens, the family my mother worked for had two daughters. The younger of the two was called Jane Alicia, and referred to rather reverently in conversation as Miss Jane. It doesn’t stretch my imagination too far to know who I was named after. When my mother was pleased with me, which wasn’t often, or when she had visitors for tea and I was under a death threat if I argued, she fondly called me “Our Jane.”
            Otherwise I was, “Where’s that Janet got to? Eh, but she’ll be the death of me.” That was an exaggeration. Mum lived to be 105 and I had nothing to do with her demise, promise.
            My first novel was written under a pen name. Being confronted by a name I’d chosen for myself was traumatic. It felt as though somebody had stolen my work. It reinforced the notion that names were an important part of my characterization.
            So from then on I was Janet (forget the housekeeper notion!)
            I do sometimes have a smidgen of regret for not soaring off on my angel wings though. Who know how high I could have flown!