Articles about writing

What’s in a name? 

What is it about naming our characters? Some writers I know are just brilliant at coming up with the perfect name every time. As soon as I start reading, I am hooked by the name which tells me, immediately, what I can expect from that character. Then there are other writers who use the same names in every short story they write, usually those of people of their own age, that were popular 30, 40, 50 years ago.

I apologise to those of you called Mary and John but they tend to be the ones I see most frequently! Lovely names and perfect for the right character. But a little more time and thought when choosing your characters’ names will make you, your stories and your characters much more memorable.

Could Harry Potter possibly be called anything else, or Ron, or Hermione, or Severus Snape? And what about Sherlock? Other literary names that linger in the memory include Hannibal Lecter, Sam Spade, Scarlett O’Hara, Forrest Gump, Huckleberry Finn, Robinson Crusoe, Phileas Fogg, Tristan Shandy, Holly Golightly, Pippi Longstocking and even Eeyore. My personal all-time favourite is Atticus Finch. In fact, To Kill A Mockingbird probably has one of the best collections of names ever: Scout, Jem, Calpurnia and Boo Radley.

And what about the James Bond books and movies? They have their own delightful collection: Pussy Galore, Bambi, Solitaire, Nick Nack, Oddjob, Jaws, Scaramanga and, of course, M and Q. The hero, in this case, has the plainest name of them all! Ian Fleming was a keen birdwatcher and took the name of the author of Birds of the West Indies for his dashing secret agent.

Did you know that Margaret Mitchell’s famous heroine started life as Pansy? Yes, really! Pansy O’Hara. Not sure Rhett Butler would have been quite so keen! It was Miss Mitchell’s publisher who persuaded her that it wasn’t quite right (because of the sexual connotations of the time) and so Scarlett was born. And from the same book, in early drafts, Tara was originally called Fountenoy Hall.

Think of your personal favourite fictional characters and see how well their names fit their characters.

So, how to go about choosing names for your stories? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Create a character profile BEFORE naming them. Their personality traits and quirks might suggest a name.
  2. Decide how old your characters are and look up names that were in use in their birth year. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has an excellent archive of names going back to 1904.
  3. Baby name books are useful but there are other resources:
  • The Oxford Names Companion is a hefty tomb that is currently on sale for just a penny plus postage and packing. It covers surnames, first names and British place names.
  • Take a look at a map of the solar system and you’ll immediately see where J K Rowling found many of Harry Potter’s friends and foes, like Draco, Sirius, Bellatrix, Centaurs and Remus Lupin.
  • Flowers, animals, birds and colours can all inspire names.
  • If your stories go back in time, then graveyards, church and census records, and family tree websites will help in finding just the right period name.
  • Want a name that’s a little more classy? Go to Debrett’s. Your local library will have a copy.
  • Ernest Hemingway is said to have used the Bible when looking for story titles – useful for unusual names too.
  1. Avoid having characters whose names start with the same letter. You may know how different John, James and Julian are; it’ll be more difficult for your readers. Vary the number of syllables – Jim, Maggie and Christopher will be easier for readers to identify than Jim, Chris and Sue. And try to avoid having names that end the same, like Jerry, Sally and Johnny.
  2. Many cultures set great store by the meaning of given names and there are a host of websites that can help.
  3. Some cultures still have rules or traditions about names. For example, in certain parts of Greece, a child will be given his or her grandparent’s name, either as their first or a middle name. In religious families, names of saints can be a popular choice.

Of course in real life, each of us responds to a whole variety of names during the course of a single day. Mum, Grandma, Sis, Auntie, Jem, Jemma, Jemima, Jemmy, J, Mrs Harper, Ben’s mum, slowcoach, love, dearie. In your stories, try always to make it clear who a name refers to if you have to use alternatives. Introduce nicknames gradually and if you can work in the reason for the nickname, then your reader has a better chance of remembering who it refers to.

In books with a considerable number of characters, particularly historical novels and those set in other countries, there may be a cast list at the beginning – Dramatis Personae. With family and historical sagas, there may even be one or more family trees. I’ve found opinions divided on this subject: some people love them and frequently refer to them, others think they are annoying and that you should be able to tell who’s who from the prose.

One word of warning: if you are writing about a particularly wicked solicitor or estate agent or local businessman, you as the author MUST ensure that there is no real solicitor, estate agent or businessman with that name. If your story is published and someone spots their namesake, then you could, feasibly, be sued for libel. Another very good reason for choosing more unusual names.

Now, please excuse me because I think I need a new pen name…….

Where should I put a full stop?

Aristophanes of Byzantium was responsible for introducing punctuation marks, back in the third century BCE. Aristophanes was a Greek literary critic and grammarian who went on to become head librarian at the library in Alexandria.

He created the full stop (or period), the comma and the colon. It was his way of helping speakers read a text out loud. His marks were a series of dots at different heights which indicated a separate verse, where to take a breath and how long that breath should be.

His ideas fell out of favour when the Romans took over but were revived in the 7thcentury by Isidore of Seville. His book The Etymologies came to be regarded as a textbook through the Middle Ages.

Our full stops (called periods in the US) evolved from Aristophanes’ dot to mark a long breath needed for reading a long piece of text.

In Aristophanes’ time, the dot was called a periodos; Chaucer called them points; and Shakespeare called them periods. Grammarians in the 16thcentury changed the name to full stops to mean the end of a sentence. And nowadays, in the computer age, we refer to a dot in the middle of an email address or webpage.

Dots or full stops are also used to indicate abbreviations e.g. although this is falling out of favour eg

Basically, a sentence is one whole thought, idea or action.

I ran to the park. It was raining.

She counted to ten and opened her eyes. They had all gone.

In dialogue, full stops MUST be used INSIDE speech marks, to indicate the end of a spoken sentence.

John said, “I don’t want to go.”

If the speech tag follows the speech, then there should be a comma INSIDE the speech marks. “I don’t want to go,” John said.

After a full stop, the next word MUST have a capital letter. This shows that a new sentence has begun.

Censorship and the Theatre

 As writers, we should be aware of what limitations there may be on our writing for public consumption ie censorship. As a lover of history, I also want to know what censorship there has been in the past in the UK.

Scarf censorship
Cartoon from the V&A exhibition by Gerald Scarfe

I will admit, right now, that I was so surprised when I realised that censorship of the theatre in this country was only done away with in my lifetime! When I was a very young and naïve 18-year-old, in fact. I suppose because I grew up with “anything goes” at the theatre, in films and books, I wasn’t really aware what had gone on before and how ground-breaking the Theatres Act of 1968 was.

So I was pleased to have the opportunity of visiting the V&A’s exhibition on Censorship and the Theatre at the end of last year. I’ll come to that later. First, a quick run-down of what censorship there has been over the years.

  • The Greek philosopher Plato is thought to be one of the earliest objectors, declaring that the performances did not portray real events and so were not worthy. Plato’s term for actors was hypocrites, meaning one who hides under a mask.
  • The Athenian lawmaker Solon made similar protests about the plays Thespis was writing, saying that they were not true, and people might start believing in and imitating them.
  • Such moral objections were also raised in Roman times. In the first century AD, Cicero declared “dramatic art and the theatre is generally disgraceful”.
  • As Rome declined towards the end of the fifth century, the Roman Church increased in power and theatres were virtually eliminated.
  • Theatre became popular again in Mediaeval times when the Church was in charge of Mystery plays. But as they got more and more bawdy, they were ordered from church precincts and had to go travelling.
  • Later complaints were that the acting community was amoral and corrupt, having a bad influence on actors and audiences.
  • Censorship of stage plays was exercised by the Master of the Revels in England from Elizabethan times until the order closing theatres in  1642 when the Puritan view prevailed, the first English Civil War began and theatres were closed down.
  • After the Monarchy was restored in 1660, plays were once more allowed, under a new Licensing system.
  • By the end of the 17th century, opinions had changed yet again, and playwrights were accused of “profanity, blasphemy, indecency, and undermining public morality through the sympathetic depiction of vice.”
  • In 1737 Sir Robert Walpole was responsible for passing The Licensing Act. It was said he wanted to prevent criticism of his government from the stage.
  • From then until 1968, theatre censorship was in the hands of the Lord Chamberlain, a senior servant in the royal household and responsible to the monarchy. No new play could be publicly performed without being first licensed by him, and he could either ban plays or demand changes as he saw fit. The Lord Chamberlain was not obliged to supply reasons for his decisions, or to follow any criteria other than his own whims, and because he was part of the royal household, he was not even answerable to parliament.

So now we come to more modern times and the V&A’s exhibition. Letters, cartoons, photos, newspaper articles and film were all used to illustrate how things began to change in the 1960s.

  • While censorship was often linked to moral issues (in the early 20th century Oedipus was banned in case it inspired audiences to go home and commit incest), it was also applied for political reasons – even Noel Coward saw his plays banned in the 1920s because of fears that their depiction of a decadent upper class might encourage working-class revolution.
  • In an age when there was no television and little radio, theatre was seen as second only to the press in its influence; as one MP put it, “young men and young women form their ideas of what is right and wrong in no small degree from what they witness on the stage.”
  • Theatres could be prosecuted for performing work that had been refused a license. Banned plays included Ibsen’s Ghosts and Mrs Warren’s Profession by George Bernard Shaw. Hair
  • In the 1960s, work by a new generation of playwrights grew in popularity despite being denied a licence; they’d stage works in a private club, as a way of getting around the censor.  
  • The day after The Theatres Act was passed in 1968, the American countercultural musical Hair – with its nude scenes, drug taking and anti-war vibe – opened in the West End, something that would not have been possible 24 hours previously.
  • But while the edgier work by John Osborne and his contemporaries could now be seen on our major stages, in practice the new law did not mean total artistic freedom. While theatre censorship might not formally exist any longer, other aspects of the law have been used since to shut down productions, including charges of blasphemy and indecency. 

So, is the theatre in Britain now censorship free?

Over the last 50 years, there have been a number of incidents that have called into question how free artists really are in what they can depict on stage, with social media playing an increasingly complicated role in the debate. The following are some of the most contentious examples from the past half-century:

  1. The Romans in Britain: male rape. Prosecution for gross indecency failed.
  2. Jerry Springer: The Opera: Jesus wearing a nappy. Prosecution for blasphemy failed.
  3. Behzti: rape scene in a Sikh temple. Violence amongst protestors. Performances cancelled.
  4. Exhibit B: human zoos of the 19th century. Closed because of security fears after protests.
  5. Homegrown: radicalisation of young Muslims. cancelled halfway through rehearsals.

In discussions with other writers, we came up with quite a variety of ways in which writers, particularly playwrights, are still being censored in the 21stcentury.

  • Theatres are often influenced by patrons, sponsors and advertisers as to what they can stage.
  • Local councils have a say as to what theatres in their district can put on.
  • Playwrights have said they are doing more self-censoring because they know what will and will not be permitted.

If you have any comments about anything in this article, please do get in touch.

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