Posts Tagged ‘names’

Last Friday, I attended the VCon novel-writing workshop. I came looking for encouragement, and found it in the comments of the two professional writers, Eileen Kernaghan and Robert Sawyer. Many of the negative comments could be disregarded as a sign of careless reading, although, Sawyer, to my embarrassment as an ex-English teacher, pointed out at least two places where I should have used the subjunctive.

However, the comment that I have mulled over the most was Sawyer’s complaint about the main character’s name. In reviewing a couple of entries to the workshop, he mentioned a dislike of invented names like Luke Skywalker. I am thinking about the comment because I at least partly agree with him, but changing a character’s name is a serious step. To my poetry-trained year, changing the character’s name means changing their personality as well, which can require a complete revision of the manuscript.

On the one hand, I dislike the surnames often borrowed from role-playing games, especially from elvish characters. Often these names show either a lack of imagination, such as (to invent an example on the spot) Inglorion Far-Traveler, or (to invent another quick example) an embarrassing attempt to sound mystical and exotic, such as Glorfindel StarDweller. My character’s name fits neither category – or so I believe – so I am not exactly pleased to have it lumped in with them. Yet considering that Sawyer is a successful, better than average professional writer, I want to think twice before disregarding his criticism – always keeping in mind that one writer’s opinion of your work can sometimes mean no more than they would done things differently.

On the other hand, invented or obscure names are used by many writers. Charles Dickens, for example, had Uriah Heep, Oliver Twist, Whackford Squeers and dozens of others. Thomas Hard had Tess of the D’Ubervilles. Stephen King had Dolores Claiborne. And if you include semi-allegorical names, like Mrs. Malaprop, the examples jump from the dozens to the hundreds. From these examples, I conclude that unusual names are acceptable in popular literature, and are even more so in fantasy and at least sometimes in science fiction. Granted, though, they may not be to everybody’s taste.

I have considered some alternative names, and found one or two that seem acceptable to me. All the same, I am glad to be some ways from a second draft, so I have time to think more about the issue.

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Apart from gender, few things are as central to a person as their name. Someone choosing a pseudonym is likely to choose a new name as close to the original one as possible, or at least keep the same initial. So is a transsexual. Still others go through different versions of their names, adopting diminutives or alternate versions of their names to suit different stages in their lives. Even when changing identities, apparently, people have a hard time severing all connections with their original name. But it’s a connection that leaves me bemused, because I mostly don’t share it.

Oh, in my teen years, I used to sign poems and stories as “B. Allan Byfield,” thinking it more euphonious than plain “Bruce Byfield.” I also toyed with changing my name to “Brian,” a much more common name for my generation, which I often got called anyway.

At times, too, I’ve lamented the lack of variations possible in my first name. If you’re called something like “James,” then you have no end of possible variations: Jamie, Jem, Jemmie, Jim, Jimmy, even Hamish, if you’re of a Gaelic turn of mind. But “Bruce”? Not much can be done with that, except adding a boyish “ie” at the end. And one or two people have tried to call me “Bru,” but it’s never caught on.

However, I can’t say that I’ve spent much time worrying about such matters. After a couple of years, I decided that “B. Allan Byfield” sounded pretentious, and I’ve never cared enough to change my name or find some variation that I like.

Really, the only thing I have against the plain monosyllable is that the only association it gave me as I was growing up was the Scottish king Robert the Bruce sitting in a cave taking lessons in perseverance from a web-spinning spider. It’s not a bad story, and persistence is one of my characteristics, so perhaps I learned from it, but I would have liked a few other Bruces for role-models as well.

On the plus side, I appreciate that my name is unusual. Since the rise of the Internet, I have noticed a few Googlegangers, including a real estate salesman and a minister, but, in every day interactions, my name is unique.

Moreover, if I encounter someone with the same surname, I can be reasonably sure that a connection exists somewhere, even if I don’t know what it is. Chances are, I am related in some way to Ted and Link Byfield of Alberta Report fame, although the fact that we are all journalists is a coincidence, and I deplore their politics. Similarly, Jamaican Byfields exist, but whether an ancestor was a slave owner or married a transported African, I don’t know. But I do like to think that the Richard Byfield who was vicar in Stratford-on-Avon in the 1590s was an ancestor, and that he might have preached to Shakespeare, or even taken his Sunday sermon down the road to have the playwright criticize his rhetoric.

Such fleeting thoughts aside, I’ve always sympathized with the poet and novelist Robert Graves, who in “My Name and I” asserted that he and his name were independent entities who were only distantly connected.

More recently, since I became a journalist and my name gained some little recognition in free and open source software circles, I’ve appreciated the title of one of Alec Guiness’ autobiographies, My Name Escapes Me. In one autobiography, Guiness mentions his bemusement at Star Wars fans sending him action figures of his character Obiwan Kenobi and imagining that he would want them.

No one has sent me any swag yet (nor would I want it), but, in my own much smaller way, I’m starting to understand what Guiness’ title means. When people discuss what I’ve written in blogs, I’ve sometimes reacted personally, if only in my head. Yet, increasingly, as I hear people praise or vilify this “Bruce Byfield,” or ascribe not only opinions, but also characteristics and habits that I don’t share in the least, I wonder who they are talking about. This “Bruce Byfield” that they are going on about doesn’t even seem to be a friend or acquaintance of mine. He certainly isn’t me.

But no doubt my name and I will travel along in loose association in much the same way as we have until now. Then I will die, and for a while my name will live on in a few statistics and memories, free of its unwanted connection with me at last.

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