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How not to serial 8


This is the eighth excerpt from David Armstrong's wry and entertaining How not to Write a Novel: Confessions of a Midlist Author

8.  Names

'No, Groucho is not my real name. I'm breaking it in for a friend.'

                                                                                  Groucho Marx

Martin Amis reckons that if you're going to spend two or three hundred pages with a character, write his name hundreds - possibly thousands - of times, it's a good idea to get something that really fits.

Dickens, according to his biographer, Peter Ackroyd, 'could not write a character until he had a fitting name. And what a legacy of grotesques he left us: Micawber; Fagin; Estelle Haversham; Tulkinghorn; Magwitch, and a hundred other extraordinary names and characters that have become part of the English language itself.

The best approach is to give your main character a name that feels comfortable to you, that you're at ease with, and that you aren't going to mind typing a thousand times. It should, also, be a name that goes some way to reflecting that person's character: Sue Townsend's eponymous 'Adrian Mole'; the central character in Martin Amis's Money (1984) 'John Self, with all that that sobriquet 11'1 implies; the 'hero' of his London Fields (1989), dart-playing, drink-sodden, 'Keith Talent'.

Many of Evelyn Waugh's novels feature a character called Crutweed. This unfortunate was a former university tutor of the novelist's. Waugh disliked the man so much that the don has now achieved a sort of dubious immortality in the satirist's novels.

Simon Gray's Old Flames actually names the theatre critics who had so irritated the playwright that he finally takes the opportunity to level the score. (Quite a risky strategy, I'd have thought, and not one I'd recommend to a budding writer.)

When I look at the books I've had published, I regret that I didn't take more care over names. In Night's Black Agents, set in the 1930s, I called my Birmingham-based detective, 'John Hammond'. This was unexceptionable. But really, I know that I could have done better. (The villain, a taciturn boatman, 'Ezra Talbot', was both more fittingly and more engagingly named.)

In my second book, the 1960s-set Less Than Kind, the hero cop is 'John Munroe'. A little better, I think, but really, it says nothing about the man, it's so unadventurous, so anonymous.

At least with the first book, I have the excuse that the book was written as much in hope as expectation: I was by no means sanguine about its success in finding a publisher.

But by the time Less Than Kind was written, I had a publisher, and that book was likely to receive a much more sympathetic reading from my editor at HarperCollins. For that reason alone, I should have made more effort with the names of the characters in it.

But I'm a slow learner. And even when I'd stepped up to the present day, and was writing Until Dawn Tomorrow, (1995), a contemporary novel set in London in the mid-Nineties, couldn't I have come up with a better name for my alter-ego detective inspector than 'Frank Kavanagh'?

I suppose 'Frank' is just about all right, given his age (he's in his forties).

But 'Kavanagh'? What does that 'say'? Irish (ish) of course. But why did I do that? Shame-faced, I confess that I've absolutely no idea. What it did mean was that I then had to give him some (spurious) history that I only came up with because of the name that I had saddled him with.

OK, that kind of organic development can be fruitful, but I'm sure that, had I spent a bit of time thinking about a name for this character, it would have said something more, and more appropriate, for me.

(I wasn't to know, of course, that even as Until Dawn Tomorrow was being printed ITV were creating the John Thaw vehicle, Kavanagh QC, a programme that would air at the same time as my book was published.)

I doubt that my few thousand readers were going to suffer any confusion that they couldn't manage to read a book whose main character shared a name with a famous TV creation. And I suppose you could even make a, case for saying that any reflection from the bigger pool of TV, plus John Thaw, could do no midlist writer any harm. But I'd still recommend avoiding confusion with other fictional characters if you possibly can.


The next excerpt from How not to Write a Novel will be in the December Magazine.


About How Not to Write a Novel

The first excerpt
The second excerpt
The third excerpt
The fourth excerpt
The fifth excerpt
The sixth excerpt
The seventh excerpt
The eighth excerpt
The ninth excerpt
The tenth excerpt
The eleventh excerpt
The twelfth excerpt


© David Armstrong 2003

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