Friday, October 24, 2008

What's in a name? Or a story title, come to that?

Got an email from a script editor yesterday, suggesting a new title for one of my projects. I'm still fond of my original name for the story - having the word Atrocity in my working title left nobody in any doubt about the tone - but the new title is much better. Clever, gives a call-back to classic terminology for the genre, and still sums up the essence of the story. Just wish I'd thought of it myself.

When I was a comics editor I wasn't too bad at suggesting alternate titles for other people's stories [objectivity makes you so much smarter, don't you find]. But putting a name on one of my own efforts is more of a struggle. Most of the novels I wrote for Black Flame got their titles changed along the way, for one reason or another. My Doctor Who novel Empire of Death was Metempsychosis for a while - too obscure, perhaps, but far less cheesy.

Had a debate with another script editor yesterday about character names. They have a pet peeve about writers giving their creation outlandish or unlikely monikers. Me, I don't mind it so long as the names serve a purpose. Calling a woman Jemima suggests an elevated upbringing [how many girls from sinkhole estates do you know called Jemima?]. Calling a former thief Fingers hints at his past. But calling a crime boss Caligula is probably going too far.

There's a choice to be made. Do you want your characters to be memorable and distinct from one another? How can you achieve that in a ten-page treatment when you have to introduce a large ensemble cast? In a full script characters define themselves by their actions, but in a treatment some shorthand is required. Memorable names are a brisk way to make characters pop. Calling a crime boss Caligula may be on the nose, but it's easy to remember.


Lucy said...

I wasn't aware we had a DEBATE my friend, I just made the point that outlandish names are a bit Charles Dickens as far as I'm concerned... I take your point about Jemima, it is more of a Toff name, but it's still unusual. I personally would go for something like Charlotte or Harriet. Yes there are Charlottes and even Harriets on estates, but they're usually called "Charlie", "Lottie" or "Hattie". Fingers to me is more comic book and Caligula is plain mental. I like the idea of seemingly innocuous names that hint at something a bit sinister - Lynda La Plante's drug Dealer THE STREET for example in Prime Suspect or Clive Barker's THE SURGEON in Weaveworld.

But hey: as I always say - YOUR STORY! ; )

John Soanes said...

There's a fine line, isn't there? Calling someone Goode when they're far from it is quite a nice touch, but I think, to give an example, Warren Ellis does tend to overdo the unusual name tendency, and the names often hint at their personality types or abilities; Spider Jerusalem, Jenny Sparks, Jack Hawksmoor, that kind of thing...
There's something I like about mundane names for people in films, having the odd Smith or Jones because having characters called things like Cole Trickle (Days of Thunder, I believe?) tends to jerk me out of the story with a 'What? What kind of name is that? What was the writer thinking?'

Chuck Dickens said...

the only jemima i know is not at all posh.
only surnames can really be posh.

all that stuff lucy said about estate kids abbreviating their names is nonsense.
it's more about the surroundings you enter than your class background.
no posh kid wants to be taken for one.
always going on about their second uncle twice removed who worked in a greengrocers "he always said, be lucky sweedart." (no pun)

mods (smart) are working class, hippies (scruffy) are posh, see?