Thursday, April 5, 2012
The Art of Writing No 8
What’s in a name? A rose is a rose is a rose.
We are superstitious about names. Our personal histories are such that we attach significance to names for good or ill. We may scour books for the meaning of names before we register our children. We believe these names go back to antiquity and that they affect the character of the person, once the appellation is designated. All this may or may not be true. There are, in the case of my own name, good Jacks and bad Jacks. I remember being somewhat mortified by William Golding (one of the best writers in English in my reading experience) naming the sinister boy who undermines human virtue in Lord of the Flies, Jack. Why? Perhaps because Jack is a diminutive of John, the commonest name and he was intending to show that there is evil in us all.
Choosing names for characters in books can be a matter of instinct but then again, if you are to plunge into the history of names it may guide your development of characters on the page. In Azimuth I did a rare thing. I researched. Because there are so many characters in the trilogy, I wanted each to be defined further by what might lie implicitly beneath the surface of his or her name. This is because I believe, in the Jungian sense, that names act within us at an unconscious level. They are multi-layered with meaning accreted through the ages.
Take my three central characters, spread over the 920 pages; Kamil, Sabiya and Sharazad. Kamil, the middle-aged historian’s name means ‘perfect’ and in Azimuth he is God fearing and proper, always trying to aspire to goodness. Sabiya, on the other hand means eastern wind or morning. In Azimuth she represents a new kind of woman, mixed race and manipulatively intelligent. Sharazad, her daughter, on the other hand, means ‘story teller’ as in 1001 Nights, a highly influential book for me because it contains two narratives, one encompassing the other and Azimuth follows the same kind of structure. By naming my characters I was also giving them an endowment to be that kind of person and it helped them to navigate idiosyncratically through the adventures that befell them. They ceased to be ciphers but flesh and blood to me.