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The Name Game

Why names in fiction matter

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

I was sitting next to my first cousin watching a performance of one of my plays, and it wasn’t until halfway through that I realised I’d unconsciously named the belligerent, hypersensitive main character after her. In the dark of the auditorium I went hot and cold — would she realise? What would she say? What would I say if she challenged me, which, being the prickly character she was, she very well might.

But if my cousin did realise, she never confronted me about it. Perhaps she even took the hint by recognising something in her unappealing namesake. But the whole incident did alert me to the dangers of the unacknowledged influences in our naming of characters.

As a teacher of writing I’m always amused when a student calls a character ‘Clare’, even if it’s disguised as ‘Claire’. Recently I had a new, gender-fluid student writing a fascinating play about a transgender teenager and their fraught relationship with their mother. I had only met the student briefly, but as an Eighties feminist in my mid-fifties I was interested to see this debate explored from the younger generation’s perspective. Imagine my surprise when the script arrived and the character list described the mother as: “Clare, 55. An Eighties feminist who considers herself progressive in her views”. Ouch.

The student protested vehemently that this was an inadvertent slip, but others can be more targeted. I studied for my MA with the twenty-one-year-old Sarah Kane, who was fearless and provocative from the start. When a certain leading writer and director we shall call ‘Kerry’ came to teach a writing workshop, Saz wrote a short scene whose main character was ‘Kerry: fat, balding, middle-aged theatre director’. It was entirely intentional.

But often it’s the unintended slips that have more serious implications. In 1986 David Cornwell aka John Le Carré wrote A Perfect Spy which included a character who is a Marxist intellectual, working for MI5. He named him Hobsbawn. Eric Hobsbawm, the celebrated Marxist intellectual who emphatically never did work for MI5, was alerted to this fact and contacted Cornwell, courteously inquiring what the meaning of this was. Cornwell claimed at the time that he wasn’t thinking of the historian and denied he had ever known his work. He refused a request to change the name in all subsequent editions of the novel. Hobsbawm’s biographer, Richard J Evans, suggests that as Cornwell is known to have been an intelligence agent for both MI5 and MI6 in the fifties and sixties, it’s more than possible that he picked up the name from ‘a half-remembered file’ he had read during the course of his work. More recently, Cornwell admitted in an interview with The Observer that he ‘had simply reached for a name that would have the right political associations’. Whatever the truth, the name Hobsbawm is both memorable and uncommon, and the suggestion that the academic might have been a secret agent potentially damaging. It reveals Hobsbawm in a favourable light that he was prepared to overlook this implied calumny.

Naming characters is clearly a serious business. And just as any new parent agonises over the choice of a name, so too playwrights must choose judiciously. Names go in fashions, as the annual announcement about the ‘top’ boys’ and girls’ names proves (this can serve as a useful resource for finding your characters’ monikers, by the way). This year, according to the Independent, the top boys’ name is Muhammed, with Noah and Oliver close behind. Names tell us so much about their bearer’s background and the times they live in. A hundred years ago a Nancy might have been a burglar’s squeeze and part of a pickpocketing underground organisation, but nowadays she’s more likely to be a former Tory Prime Minister’s daughter. Old-fashioned names like Maisie and Emilia are increasingly popular — they started to come into vogue twenty years ago, and now the popularity of two lead actors from Game of Thrones has created a second wave of baby Maisies and Emilias. Apparently Greta (after Thunberg) and David (after Attenborough) are also on the rise. When naming characters, a writer has to take all of this into consideration, while trying to avoid too obviously recognisable influences.

The Restoration playwrights had no such scruples, and instead had a great deal of fun creating names which clearly indicated the social background and a great deal else about their characters. Ben Jonson is master of this art, with The Alchemist alone boasting Face (the master of disguises), Subtle (who is crafty beyond belief), Sir Epicure Mammon (speaks for itself), Doll Common, Dame Pliant, Tribulation Wholesome (the pastor), Sir Pertinax Surly and Abel Drugger the tobacconist.

Shakespeare’s names for his creations are more nuanced than the broadly comic ones of the Restoration characters, but even so some have fallen into common usage — we all know a Romeo when we meet him, although the character in the play is the very opposite of the heartless philanderer the term has come to indicate. Shakespeare had to create a phenomenal number of characters, with remarkably little doubling. But scholars have noticed a preponderance of Emilias in the canon: she appears in Othello, The Winter’s Tale, The Comedy of Errors and Two Noble Kinsmen. This repetition suggests the playwright had a soft spot for the name, and possibly therefore a person bearing that name. A. L. Rowse identified the ‘dark lady’ of the sonnets as Emilia Lanier, née Bassano — daughter of a Venetian Jew living in London, a published poet whose father was a court musician. If Shakespeare did have an affair with her, this perhaps explains why there is an Emilia in Othello, set in Venice, and a Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, about a Jew.

Michelle Terry commissioned Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s wonderful play Emilia on the basis of this theory, which Malcolm turned into a paean for all women writers obscured either by history or by more famous men. She celebrated Emilia the poet in her own right, relegating Shakespeare to a minor character, who appropriates her words and puts them wholesale into his plays, uncredited.

In Othello, Emilia is not the romantic lead, but her attendant, and married to the arch-villain of all of the plays, Iago. If I were Emilia, would I be insulted by being relegated to a secondary character? Or would I be relieved not to be exposed in the full glare of the spotlight? Would I perhaps snigger at the coded insults to my odious husband? This seems especially likely, since Emilia is given the startlingly hard-nosed speech about marriage: ‘But I do think it is their husbands’ faults/If wives do fall…’ Which serves as a perfect justification for Emilia Lanier née Bassano’s adulterous love affair with the playwright.

It’s tempting to read these patterns and repetitions as a coded tribute to a real woman; but even if it is merely unconscious borrowing of a name and unattributed stealing of ideas, it suggests that Emilia Bassano taught the playwright some valuable lessons in tolerance and empathy.

Most people are likely to be flattered to be included in a work of fiction. The character of Jane in my play Blue Sky was inspired by the investigative journalist Stephen Grey, whose book Ghost Plane had sparked my initial idea. I had consulted him and credited him, but I was still nervous when I heard he was coming to see a performance. The character was heavily based on him in terms of his work, but completely made up in terms of her emotional life. In the end he was extremely gracious, and seemed to relish seeing himself portrayed on stage.

But it’s a different matter for writers who find themselves portrayed in someone else’s fictions. It’s a matter of professional pride not to be the unwitting provider of content for rivals without an acknowledgement. I remember being very put out to see several sequences of an early Geoff Dyer novel lifted shamelessly from direct experience we shared, with me edited clean out of them. Now I know it is the nature of the beast, and I’m probably guilty of similar unconscious stealing from the words and lives of others.

But I only ever consciously name characters after specific people when I want to exact coded revenge. It’s particularly pleasing naming odious characters after those who have wronged you in love. But one of my most hateful characters, the politician turned war criminal in my future dystopian play After The Peace, was very hard to name. For a long time I simply referred to him as ‘Dad’. He wasn’t modelled on my father at all. My mother always thinks that any character called ‘Mum’ is directly inspired by her, and feels correspondingly hurt or flattered. The one character I specifically based on her, I named John. Provided she never reads this article, I think I’m safe.

So writers, beware! Your naming of characters can reveal more than you intend about you, which future scholars may unearth. But equally, you should enjoy the fact that you can make sly references to those you wish to honour or discredit in the names you choose for your creations. And of course, it wasn’t my first cousin I was sitting next to in the theatre. At least I’ve remembered to disguise that.

Clare Bayley’s plays have been produced at the National Theatre, the Young Vic, Hampstead Theatre and internationally. After The Peace was produced as part of the RADA Festival this summer, and Family Trees was given a rehearsed reading at Bolton Octagon in November 2019.

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