My latest essay on RTÉ Arena is about ‘Names’. Have a listen here or gander on for the full text…
Funny things names. It would be pretty unusual to just invent one from scratch. Instead, they are foraged from surroundings and experiences, stolen from history and nature, inspired by colours and flowers, jewels, even occupations. For a long time in Ireland religion played a major part, from apostles to the pious or the prevailing pontiff of the time. There was certainly no shortage of John Pauls knocking around my housing estate in the 1980s.
Influences come and they go and what may have seemed odd to folk in the last century can become commonplace in the new. In this era of the celebrity obsessed, the famous are often mimicked, kids named after the place they were conceived. Brooklyn, Nevada. Paris, even Ireland.
When it comes to branding a character, there are some authors who will mull over it for weeks. But does it really make any difference? Take my Dad for example, a man known by many titles. ‘Donal’ to my mother, ‘Granda’ to his grandchildren, ‘Mister’ to the kids on the street. On any number of Christmas cards he is Ronan. And for some strange reason all correspondence with the gas company refers to him as David. Yet, nobody calls him by the name that’s on his birth cert – Daniel. I can’t help but wonder if his life would have turned out differently if he’d stuck with the original title? Would people have treated him differently? Would he have grown that moustache?
Of course some could use Charles Dickens as an argument to support a lengthy naming process, a writer famed for selecting the colourful and unusual, often ones which hint at a character’s personality. Mr Wopsle, Bill Bitherstone. Chester, Chick and Old Martin Chuzzlewit. Some of his characters, like Scrooge and Pecksniff have even found their way into the everyday vernacular.
I generally go for the common or the understated, normal people in deep crisis or extraordinary situations. The problem with this is that I sometimes forget what I’ve called a character as I move through different sections of the book, similar to that moment at a party where you’ve forgotten the name of the person you’ve only been introduced to three seconds before. But surely your ability to empathise with a character shouldn’t depend on a name. William Shakespeare wrote –
That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet.
And it’s easy to see the truth in this. On the other hand, back in the late 16th Century and failing to be of noble family, if he had been christened Mable Shakespeare, we may never have seen this observation in print at all. Or at the very least, we may never have discovered that she wrote it in the first place.