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A name with character

Updated: Feb 18, 2018

Choosing a new name for yourself is like naming a character - only way harder.


What's in a name, as some old fella once said.


Thinking up names for the characters in your script or story is hard. A character's name has to encapsulate their personality, reflect their history and their surroundings, symbolise the subtext of their arc, and 'sound right'. Finding the perfect fit for your character is a tough choice.


Now imagine doing that for yourself.


That's the decision my partner Susi and I faced when we decided to start a family earlier this year. We felt strongly that we wanted to share a surname with each other and with our children - but we also felt strongly that one of us giving up their surname wasn't the right choice for us.


So we decided to come up with a new name.


One single word. One meagre handful of letters. And all it has to do is encapsulate and symbolise both of us as individuals and collectively as our new family.


And sound cool.


Deciding not to have one of us adopt the other's surname isn't a criticism or judgement of anyone who opts for the traditional route. As we wrestled with possible new handles, part of me longed for the simplicity of convention. I wouldn't have to change my email address, for a start.


But the more we talked about it, the more I came to see how unfair it is to expect my partner to change her name while I, a bloke, simply cruise on blissfully unaltered. We've always planned to raise our kid in the spirit of equality and feminism, and we couldn't profess to do that if their surname is rooted in the tradition of women (and children) being property.


The obvious option, then, was a combination of our current names. Unfortunately, our surnames didn't lend themselves to a handy portmanteau: Trenser. Weasholm. No, combinations were out. Double-barreling was also out - that struck us as just kicking the can down the road.


So we'd have to come up with a whole new word.


Which sounds like an exhilarating opportunity, alive with possibility. We can choose literally any word we want! If only we could think of something as elegant as Holly Golightly, Uriah Heep, Leeloo, Han Solo, Scarlett O'Hara or Amélie Poulain. 


Let's go nuts!


Real life, sadly, is not a genre story. As a writer you can push the envelope in certain genres: you can name a character Milo Minderbinder or Gussie Fink-Nottle or Egon Spengler in a comedy, for example. An overblown action story is the place for a muscular moniker like John Matrix, Axel Foley or Stacker Pentecost. In fantasy you can go with properly out-there confections like Obi-Wan Kenobi or Draco Malfoy, or go full-on allegorical with Luke Skywalker or Buckaroo Banzai.


But we didn't want our children, and childrens' children, judging us for all eternity. 


To narrow it down, we started thinking about what a name actually means. Was there a value that we wanted to reflect? Could we choose a symbolic honorific without looking like dickheads?


Overtly symbolic apellations are known as cratylic names. This can involve straight-up naming your character something arch like Martin Blank or Judge Dredd, symbolising something essential about the character. Martin Amis' work is full of reflexive contrivances like John Self, while George RR Martin gave us Jon Snow and Ned Stark. You have to be careful not to stray into groan-worthy territory like Pussy Galore or Hiro Protagonist, however.


To be a bit less stark about it, you could switch out a letter or two from a word that symbolises the character, like Nurse Ratched or Charles Dickens' Stryver and Slyme.


What would be a cratylic name to suit me? Wright, perhaps? Bit on the nose. 


It has to be subtler, then. Fortunately, names are alive with hidden meanings. Eve in All About Eve can be read as being all about women in general. The prisoners in Cube are named after famous prisons (Quentin, Holloway etc). Regina George is queen of the plastics.

As an example, I'm working on a screenplay about a young half-Italian policeman drawn in to the decadent world of 1960s Soho nightlife. The story addresses themes of social upheaval, the melting pot of migration, and the different faces we wear. The young policeman's name, Cesare "Chas" January, reflects these themes.


Depending on who he encounters, our protagonist switches between the Italian Cesare and the anglicised Chas - and, tellingly, sometimes hides his immigrant roots by allowing certain people to assume his name is Charles.


Delving into the meaning, Cesare means "long-haired", which echoes society's disapproval of long-haired young men at the time, and evokes the nickname for Special Branch's hirsute undercover officers of the period who were known as "hairies". Cesare also recalls the damning sobriquet given to unruly mods by an angry judge following the infamous Margate riots: "Sawdust Caesars".


Meanwhile the character's surname, January, symbolises renewal and newness, reflecting the rebirth and modernisation occurring in British society in the 60s. And it links to the Roman god of beginnings, Janus, who was often depicted with two or more faces, which reflects the different identities Chas wears as an immigrant, a mod, and an undercover policeman.


How to apply this kind of subtle symbolism to my name? Richard means "ruler", apparently. Which is funny, because I do, indeed, rule. 


Names don't have to be literal or even abstractly symbolic to evoke a character, however. Consider the swankiness of Hermione Granger, the slinkiness of Mia Wallace or the lethal simplicity of James Bond. Grounded names can be surprisingly evocative, too: the mundanity of George Bailey, Sarah Connor or Norman Bates suggest ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.


And there's always the nuclear option of naming: alliteration. Just ask Lois Lane, Don Draper or Lash LaRue. 


But still we were stymied. A writer stuck in this situation can turn to baby name books, or fire up an online name generator - there's one in Scrivener, my writing software of choice, for example. It might not seem very organic to get a machine to suggest a potential new name, but this feature is handy for quickly generating lists of names you can choose from - especially when you can specify a nationality or a first letter for the suggested names. I just tried it with the obscurity setting turned up high and it threw up Richard Bassingthwaighte, Richard Stammers and Richard Bloodworth, which are all possibilities, frankly.


But as cool as a brand new title would be, it didn't have the personal connection we coveted. Neither of us wanted to reject our respective families, both of whom we love very much. So our chosen name had to symbolise us and symbolise the new family and reflect continuity with our existing families.


And sound cool.


Then, one blessed day, on the 243 back from town, Susi posed the question: "What was your mum's maiden name?"


I hope you believe me when I say that at that moment the sun burst forth from the heavens and a choir of angels filled the sky. I've never felt such relief. We compared our mothers' birth names - I won't share them here in case there's any phishers reading - and suddenly we had the perfect handle.


Say hello to the Knightwell family.


Our new name, Knightwell, ticks all the boxes. It combines elements of our families. It suits us as a symbol of our new family. It replaces patriarchal traditions of ownership with matrilinear significance. Bizarrely, despite sounding like a real surname, it's not a common appellation at all.


And it sounds really cool.


So I've legally and officially changed from Richard Trenholm to Richard Knightwell. In the interests of keeping things simple at my day job, I'm continuing to use Richard Trenholm as my byline for journalism - which means, funnily enough, that my birth name is now my pen name - while Richard Knightwell is my name for writing fiction, script reading and general everyday use.


So that's how the story of how I found a name with character.


Now we're on first-name terms, drop me a line if you want to know more about my script reading services or want to inquire about script notes for your screenplay. 


And hey - just call me Richard.

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RICHARD KNIGHTWELL Writer / Journalist / Script Reader
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