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What’s In A Name?

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Alice in Wonderland So, National Novel Writing Month kicked off yesterday, and it has to be said it was perhaps not the best of starts. As it happens, November 1st is the anniversary of my Nanny’s death, and so I was with the family for almost the whole day. 8pm rolled around and I had not so much as written a word, nor was I particularly in the mood to write. I have, however, made it somewhat of a resolution to work on the novel each and every day in November, so I refused to allow the day to end without having at least done something.

With this in mind I managed the opening eighty four words. A poor start indeed, but better than no start at all. My mother took it upon herself to read what I’d written and (as mothers are wont to do) gushed about how wonderful it was. That said, she had one criticism.

The Mad Hatter's Tea PartyThe central characters of Twisted Sister are a pair of twins named Summer and Winter. Given the inspirations behind the novel, I decided to name them Summer and Winter Liddell, after Alice Liddell, the young girl who (supposedly) inspired Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) to write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, better know as Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I felt this was a suitable homage to the character of Alice, as well as some of the more sinister spin off characters which have arisen from the books, and which are also an inspiration to Twisted Sister, namely American McGee’s Alice, and Alice: Madness Returns, as well as the Alice of Warehouse 13’s ‘Duped’ and ‘Fractures’.

American McGee's AliceNeedess to say I was quite distressed when mother (who has a most annoying tendency to read aloud when she’s reading something I’ve written), pronounced the name ‘Lidl’, like the supermarket. This is not how the name should be pronounced. The name should be pronounced as if you were saying ‘Lie’ followed by ‘Dell’, with a particular emphasis on the ‘ie’, so that it is almost ‘y’.

I went from being very pleased with their surname and its multi-faceted meaning, to being quite irate at the notion that my characters (whom I have already come to love) could be associated with a supermarket chain I refuse to so much as step foot in.

‘It must be mother’, was my initial thought; she has a tendency to mispronounce things and still insists on saying Bon Jovi as if she were a madame in a French boudoir, no matter how many times I have told her, in the twenty or so years I’ve been listening to them, that neither the band or the man himself are French. The name actually stems from John’s true (Italian) surname, Bongiovi.

I was certain this was another case of her being ridiculous, but the thought niggled, so I tested the theory, asking people what they heard when they read the name: Ly-Dell, or Lidl; enigmatic character of fiction, or cheap purveyor of substandard foodstuffs.

Alas, the general consensus was the latter.

Rose

Shakespeare once famously wrote: what’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.

It’s not often I disagree with Shakespeare, but on this point I must beg to differ. The naming of characters is incredibly important. I like the names I bestow upon my creations, my babies if you will, to actually mean something, to have relevance to their character and the story in which they act. I also like them to have good names. I do not mean names that are intrinsically good as opposed to being inherently evil, I mean good as in pleasant to the ear, agreeable to the eye, and perhaps most importantly pronounceable, even if only in your head as you read. There is nothing more irritating than reading a book and constantly having the flow of the narrative interrupted as you stumble across an incomprehensible name, or a name that sounds, for want of a better word, silly.

The Eye of the WorldI read an awful lot of Fantasy and find that my opinion of a novel, or indeed an author, can be made or broken on the basis of the names they give their characters. I’m currently still struggling to finish the first of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time novels. I have many gripes with the book, not least of which is the fact that one of the female characters is named Egwene, something I found off-putting and, if I’m honest, slightly laughable from the start. I’ve got further in now and had finally started to overcome my distaste for the narrative, only to come across the name Ba’alzamon. Now, as ridiculous names go, this isn’t nearly as bad as some I’ve come across. It just about sits on the border of being difficult to pronounce. If you try a few times you can learn how to say it and from then on it’s not so difficult when you read it.

Reading, however, should not be this difficult. It should be fluid. In my (humble) opinion, throwing around words that cause you to pause and think ‘her name is what?’, or jump on Google to figure out what they mean and how they’re supposed to sound, have failed in their task of enriching a character and indeed a narrative, and actually detracted from both.

Consequently, I was less than pleased to learn that Liddell not only sounded silly, it came with (for me at least) connotations of very low budget and poor quality produce. This is not something I want people to associate with my Summer and Winter.

As a result I have spent much of the day, rather than writing more actual words of my novel, or getting other jobs done, doing something at which writers excel.

Through The Looking Glass

I’ve been procrastinating.

The source of my distraction has been simple: finding the perfect surname for my central characters.

This has proven to be quite the challenge, for in my head they are already Summer and Winter Liddell. No matter which avenue I went down searching out a new name for them, be it one with relevant meaning, or the name of an author, character, or historical figure who fitted the themes of the novel or the characteristics of the twins, I came up with nothing suitable. Try as I might, everything led back to Alice Liddell.

Nothing else sounded right to me ears. Contrary to Shakespeare’s statement, the rose was not smelling as sweet. Then I hit upon the notion that Alice was the daughter of the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. Somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind lurked the knowledge that, for many centuries, up to the beginning of the eighteenth century, there was an Earl of Oxford whose family went by the name de Vere.

This, I thought, was interesting.

Alice And The Kitten

I tried scribbling the name on a scrap of paper, swapping it out with Liddell wherever it appeared in my plans for Twisted Sister and, suddenly, I felt I had a sweet smelling (or rather sounding) name, that fitted into the decidedly rose-shaped hole Liddell had left.

And so, it is 4.30 in the afternoon on day two of NaNoWriMo, and I haven’t written a single word all day. I have, however, solved a very important issue which would have distracted me from writing for the rest of the month had I thought ‘oh well, I’ll leave it as Liddell for now and come back to it later’.

I have read quite a few comments from people participating in NaNoWriMo along the lines of ‘don’t edit, just write’. They are basically saying that the quality of what you have written is of no import, the only thing that matters is how many words you have got down. I can’t agree with this outlook, for while I would not expect anyone to have a fully polished MS by the end of the month, the point is to come to the end of November with a novel, not a series of words that make some vague kind of sense but aren’t really what you were hoping to achieve at all.

It may seem odd to have devoted so much time to finding the perfect surname for my characters. It may seem like a waste, a foolish indulgence, and it may seem that I am placing far too much emphasis on the importance of a simple name.

Alice and the FrogNames, however, have meaning. They convey a lot more about a character to our subconscious than we realise. Giving a character a poor name can have devastating consequences. Giving a character the perfect name can make your whole novel. There is no possibility of me ever liking Egwene in the Wheel of Time series. It doesn’t matter what she says or what she does, her name irritates me whenever I read it. I associate her with irritation and stupidity. If she were a character designed to be irritating and stupid, then her name would work perfectly (for me at least), however she isn’t, and as a result I find I can’t take her seriously.

When naming characters, have a care; the names you bestow upon them may influence your readers far more than you realise. They can, in fact, change the entire nature of a character, without you even realising it.

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