The Name of the Prose, Part 2: The Name is Bond—James Bond
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ichabod-craneAh, but what if the name hadn’t been “James Bond”? What if the name Ian Fleming gave his super spy had been “Crane, Ichabod Crane?”

Clearly, a name that worked for the nebbish, nervous protagonist of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow would not work for the decisive, suave hero of Fleming’s tales of espionage and danger.

Why not? Let’s take a closer look.

James Bond: neither given name nor surname is flowery or unusual. They are short, simple, strong. Together they give us an impression that the character is a straightforward man of action.

Ichabod Crane: the first name is odd, a bit awkward and contains the sound “ick”. The last name is that of a long-legged, ungainly bird. Taken together, they suggest someone who is perhaps both homely and gawky.

A character’s name can set a reader’s expectations of how he or she will behave and a clever writer can tell volumes about a character, or condition the atmosphere around him, merely through the syllables they choose to label him. Names send subliminal messages about a character, suggesting things about his or her nature that most readers will pick up on.

This will happen, by the way, whether the writer is aware of it or not.

Character names can also tell the reader in what spirit to take the entire story. Douglas Adams gave his Hitchhiker’s Guide characters such oddball names as “Zaphod Beeblebrox” and “Ford Prefect,” which could leave no doubt in his readers’ minds about how they were to take his tales of intergalactic adventure.

Dread Pirate Wesley

Dread Pirate Westley

William Goldman, in writing The Princess Bride, made a running gag of the fact that the hero of his off-kilter fairy tale was named “Westley”. He devotes an extended scene in the book (and the movie) to Westley explaining why he changed his name to the inherited “Dread Pirate Roberts”, a far more menacing moniker. After all, who’d shiver in fear of the “Dread Pirate Westley”?

In more serious fiction, too, notable successes often involve evocative names. Tolkien, a linguist by profession, was a master at giving things and people names that roll off the tongue in sonorous waves. Gandalf, Saruman, Thranduil, Galadriel. Magical names for magical characters. What name could say more about strength than Thorin Oakenshield? Or what could suggest obsequiousness and conniving better than Smeagol or Grima Worm-tongue?

Even the characters’ secondary names are cunning pieces of shading. Aragorn is also Strider and Elessar. Gandalf the Gray becomes Gandalf the White, but he is also called Stormcrow, Greyhame, Olórin (in his youth), Incánus, Tharkûn, The Grey Pilgrim, The White Rider, Láthspell, and Mithrandir, an elvish name that hints at dimensions of his character that are hidden. Given that he is a Mayar—which is a somewhat magical take on something between an Avatar and an archangel—this is appropriate.

What’s in a name? More, I sometimes think, than we realize.

Next time, more Tolkien—‘cos you can’t talk place names without mentioning Barad-dûr.

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The Name of the Prose, Part 2: The Name is Bond—James Bond — 20 Comments

  1. The history of the novel is packed with writers who wanted to suggest character traits with names. Take a look at Pilgrim’s Progress and all its spinoffs. Anthony Trollope, in the mid nineteenth century, also did this (as did many of his colleagues); he later admitted he’d been a tad heavy handed when one story turned into a series, and there he was, stuck with the Duke of Omnium.

    Jane Austen, in her juvenilia, makes fun of all the fictional heroines of the eighteenth century named Clarissa and Cleana, etc: when she wrote fiction, she was careful to use names that actual people were given: Jane, Catherine, Maria, Elizabeth, Susan. I suspect she would have waxed ironic at the follow-on historical romances in which so very many heroes all feature “Raven” in their names (Ravencroft, Ravenstoff, Donraven, or Donravyn, Ravynwynd), and even moreso the heroes whose first names were things like Blayze and Blaine. Whose hair was ‘raven’ and whose topaz eyes blazed, of course.

    • Or blayzed, as the case may be. Curing chillblaines in the process, I’m sure.

      Names matter.

      Btw, Maya, it’s Westley, rather than Wesley. Which adds a subtle little tweak to the name and the character. Alllmost the expected…but not.

  2. Blayzing cures chyllblaines.

    Princess Amidala is a good example of the dark side of character naming; I always see her in my mind’s eye with a kind of brain-like hairdo. Lucas is completely tone-deaf.

    • Oh, I thought I was the only person in the universe who had that reaction. Glad to know I’m not. (I mean, I didn’t think of the hairdo, which is a hilarious idea, but her name bugged the heck out of me.)

      That entire movie, I expected the Jedi to say, “Slavery! There’s slavery here! We must Do Something.”

      But they didn’t.

    • Oh, yes. Oh, absolutely. And I can rarely get past Leia Organa without my brain whispering Laya Orgasmic.

      Lucas is one of the most tone-deaf namers I’ve run across.

      Although Ian Fleming frequently named his Bond girls some truly appalling puns.

  3. And yet Crane was also the name chosen (to descend rapidly into the gorblimey) for the square-jawed second in command of the submarine Seaview in irwin Allen’s tv series Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea. By then, of course, as well as “ungainly bird,” it also meant “machine for heavy lifting.”

    What interests me almost as much as the name game played consciously and well, though, is when a creator is utterly inept at it. Yes, I’m mainly thinking of George Lucas here (Salacious Crumb? Really?) but there are many others.

  4. I’ve just read a biography of Georgette Heyer, and was fascinated to learn that she had to name all her characters first. Everybody had to have not only their names, but their titles and relationships all neatly laid out before she could work with them.
    I have to have names too. I need a handle, to work with a character. Only rarely do I change the name. (And, writery tip! If you do this, do not fail to go through the ms with the Find function! Search out every occurrence of the old name. I know of a writer who did not do this, and it was not well. The first half of the epic was about the derring-do of Robert, and the second was about James; somehow this slipped past all copyedits and proofs. The readers were confused.)

  5. And then there was the (apocryphal?) story about the writer who changed a character’s name from David to Bruce, applied search-and-replace without keeping an eye on it, and ended up with a reference to Michelangelo’s “Bruce.”

  6. I think any post on names in literature should contain at least one mention of Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, who use both his characters’ names and his own for comic effect.

      • I had a brilliant idea for PBS or the BBC to make money with a shovel. Dramatizations, of Wodehouse and Heyer. Would you not happily watch a 3-part dramatization of THE CODE OF THE WOOSTERS or FRIDAY’S CHILD?

        • Well, the Jeeves and Wooster series with Fry and Laurie from 15? years ago was brilliant, but the Beeb did a bunch of the Blandings stories a couple of years ago that were actually pretty middling- you miss all of the narrator’s lines, of course.
          You’re right, it is odd that Heyer hasn’t been done.

  7. I’ve seen a claim that Margaret Mitchell’s original name for her protagonist was “petunia”. I think the character would have read very differently than she does as Scarlett.

  8. The one that always gets me (as far as naming is concerned) is JK Rowling. I mean, naming the school watchman Argus is wonderful, but parents naming their son Remus Lupin was just asking for trouble.

    But yeah, I have problems with characters until they are named, too.

  9. Okay. This post is dated April 3, 2019. I apparently commented on it in January 2014. I don’t remember doing it, though it is the sort of comment I would make. I’m confused….

  10. With Tolkien there’s also the opportunity to see how those names evolved through his writing. Twelve+ books of opportunity. Some of the early names really don’t fit how the story evolved – Aragorn/Strider originally a Hobbit called Trotter? Frodo Baggins originally named Bingo, for example.