If a rose wasn’t called a rose would it still smell as sweet?

Depends if you like roses to start with, I suppose. I have the privilege – or sometimes pain – of being a teacher. One of the first things pupils come a cropper on when writing a story is what to call their characters. They will spend a good ten or fifteen minutes procrastinating over which friend to name them after or celebrity or even themselves, before Miss Killjoy comes along and tells them that their delightful protagonist will be call Maggie Cameron and their hero Tony Milliband. Faces fall, but pencils are soon picked up and the planning, writing or gazing out of the window resumes.

Being an educator of our young generation means I have no shortage of resources for names, especially with the wide and interesting variety that parents choose to bestow onto their young nowadays. I haven’t met a Michelle I didn’t go to school with and Paul is almost a name of the past. I’ve had the joy of teaching a Summer in winter, a Star in the daytime and Paris in Manchester, amongst others. None of those names have found their way into my stories yet; only because the character they deserve hasn’t crept out of the shadows and into the limelight yet.

My main character is Daniel, and he’s had this name for around six years. I’m not entirely sure why I became so fixated on it, maybe because of the associations with bravery- Daniel in the lion’s den – and there was a song out a couple of years ago that fitted beautifully with his back story titled ‘Daniel.’

His surname I was less attached to; I found it in a cemetery this summer on a warm, sultry Sunday. I’d just finished a rather gruelling kettlercise class and the nearby graveyard with its old monuments and weathered church were glimmering in the sunshine. It’s a village church on the edge of Derbyshire and the views from it are rather sumptuous but it wasn’t those I was tempted by.

Some people would say it’s a morbid fascination, slightly odd maybe, but I like graveyards. Churches too, and the older the better, but graveyards intrigue me; so many untold stories, and, when I need it, names.

That Sunday, I was in need of names. I’d known Daniel’s first name for years, and Rachel had been christened a couple of years back, but surnames were a different matter. I mooched around the cemetery, noticing a grave with my first and middle name, slightly eroded amongst other memorials of different size and shape and then a saw two graves together, both similar. Clough and Newton. They just sounded… right.

Other characters’ names have been fairly random; they’ve been what ever has fallen into my brain at the time of writing. Sometimes I’ve considered a name and then discarded it, knowing it just wouldn’t suit. Sometimes I’ve had to change a name because it’s just a little bit too much like someone I may know. One name was a combination of two Twitter friends (@keithbwalters and @milorambles) after I threatened to make Keith a victim. Keith Miles – the character – is now unlikely to die. Whether his fate has anything to do with his name, I do not know, but he’s a nice bloke all the same.

So what comes first? Do we define our names or do our names define us?

One family I knew years ago changed the name of their daughter as they thought it was adversely affecting her personality. Another friend opted to use his daughter’s middle name instead of her first as it ‘suited her better’.

How do names shape our characters or do we choose their names based on what we want them to be?

So how did you decide?
How did your parents decide what to call you?
And would a rose still smell sweet if it had been named cowpat instead?


One thought on “If a rose wasn’t called a rose would it still smell as sweet?

  1. Very interesting – when I write, the names just seem to pop into my head. But then there are the eras you are writing about, some names just wouldn’t suit. Doris would be fine if a novel was set in war time say, or someone’s grandmother, but I’ve yet to meet a child of today called Doris. I rather like the idea of made up names, like Dickens used ,to suit the characters.

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