Sunday, 8 May 2011

What's in a name?

Over the years I have considered the possibility of merging two of my passions: programming and writing. What would it take, I wonder, to make a computer program to write a novel? Would it be possible to make Martin Amis and J K Rowling redundant, for a program to become an author whose works would eclipse Shakespeare?

The more I write, the more I realise that this is currently impossible. Let us take one tiny part of writing a novel: naming the characters.

Think of a character in your favourite novel. What is their name, and what, consciously or subconsciously, did the author try to tell the reader with that name? Take Dirk Pitt, the hero of the early Clive Cussler books. Dirk rhymes with dark, and is also the name of a small dagger. So, a dark character who is dangerous. Pitt also suggests danger, and the suggestion of depth matches well with the character’s frequent underwater exploits.

Or Jack Ryan, the hero of some early Tom Clancy books. It is a classic Irish name, and could belong to an Irish priest or New York policeman (indeed, the character’s father was a policeman). Jack is a common name, evoking an everyman. The message is simple: an ordinary man.

Few readers analyse novels to this extent, but the hints are there and are frequently noted subconsciously.

This is often taken to extremes in children’s books. Take the Harry Potter series; it has a Remus Lupin (a werewolf) and a Professor Sprout (a Herbology teacher). These and other similar names give the children obvious clues as to the characters’ nature. A little over-obvious for adults perhaps, but perfect for children. Harry Potter itself is an ordinary name for a child who, at the beginning of the series of books, thinks of himself as utterly ordinary. It also allowed the children reading the books to associate with him more than they would if J K Rowling had named him, say, Horatio Magei. Her naming is part of Rowling’s genius; she knows her audience.

This matching of names to characters is important: a name that mismatches a character only works if the mismatch has a point. If an author called a Muslim fundamentalist terrorist Iain Fortescue-Smythe, then it would need to be explained *how* the man became a terrorist. Failure to do so would make the character ridiculous. Of course, this would work if the ridiculousness was the point, for instance in a comedic role.

Such naming inveigles itself into our everyday lives. Take the surname ‘Smith’. Perhaps the most common English surname, it’s very anonymity has granted it an air of deviousness. From the couple signing themselves into a hotel under ‘Mr and Mrs Smith’ to the ‘Agent Smith’ in the Matrix, it has connotations of people not being who they really are, of secretiveness and lies. Pity the many real Mr and Mrs Smiths who had had to book themselves into hotels over the years.

A title of a story popped into my head as I was walking back from the polling station the other day. It was: “The egregious lies of Ethelbert Myana”. I had no idea what the lies are, or why they were so flagrant and bad. Yet the name fascinated me: Ethelbert is an old regal-sounding Anglo-Saxon name, whilst Myana (preferably with a tilde or diaeresis over the middle ‘a’) evokes to me a South American or exotic air. What family history does an Ethelbert Myana have? How did he get his extraordinary name? My mind wandered as I strolled...
Perhaps his father was a crusty scholar, happier with his nose in dusty Latin tomes than in entertaining his young son. His mother was a Brazilian beauty whose socialising and affairs scandalised the local area before she ran away with someone purporting to be a film producer. She took the teenage Ethelbert with her, granting him her exotic surname. His stepfather disliked him, and he was soon parcelled away to a remote boarding school.

At first Ethelbert hated his extraordinary name, which caused him to be bullied. Over time he started wearing his name as a badge of pride, revelling in the difference it granted him from his compatriots: the ‘ordinary’ Davids, the Olivers and the Harrys. He inherited beauty and innate charm from his mother, and a keen intelligence from his father. The adult Ethelbert became a sly, charming and intelligent man who was also utterly ruthless; he could inveigle himself socially as he wove his curtain of lies. He had no need of friendships and a burning hatred of the norms of a society that had, for no other reason than his name, marked him as being different.

So from a name I have created a character with rich traits and a limited history. I have a good idea who Ethelbert Myana is and potential plot lines fill my mind like confetti. A somewhat strange name has suggested countless stories.

An author needs to work out what a name would mean to the average reader, and use that to reinforce or subvert the reader’s preconceptions. Unfortunately this means that it would be incredibly difficult to get a computer program to invent good and believable names for characters; the nuances and meanings of names are just too varied. Indeed, I would suggest that the ability to match a name and a situation, as I have above, would be a good test of artificial intelligence. 

This is sad, and yet naming of characters is one of the easier and less important aspects of writing a good novel. There is certainly room for computers to help authors word-process or keep track of plotlines and characters, yet no computer can yet devise a series of good plotlines or even construct many meaningful, connected sentences of prose (see chatterbots such as Eliza for the limitations of such attempts).

One last thing: think of what your name says about you. How has it shaped your life, and what, if anything, would you prefer to be called? How often have you judged an unseen stranger (for instance from a CV or letter) simply by their name?

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