Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Her Name is Rio ...

As a writer, there's a temptation to name characters in your stories after people who really exist. There's a grand tradition of that in Doctor Who novels - go back far enough and you'll find any number of characters christened with the names of people who then have gone on to write for the range themselves.

I certainly do it - if the character is human and the name fits, why not? - and in turn I've had it done to me. I was certainly flattered, and in my limited experience so were those whose monickers I've plundered.

As far as I know there aren't any hard and fast rules to using other people's names for fictional characters. I've picked some up as I've gone along - if a certain writer friend of mine uses your name, for instance, you can be damn sure that character won't make it to the end of the book alive. I didn't understand why that should be until relatively recently: if you kill off a character with a friend's name, sometimes that friend can take offence. So it's good to be able to point out that every one of the characters with a borrowed name bites the dust. That way no one can read any favouritism, or indeed any insult, into it. Everyone dies, everyone's equal.

Another thing I used to do was ask people if I could use their names in a story before actually doing so. It's only polite, right? That one came back to bite me in the arse when I had to drop the name of someone I'd asked because it caused a 'technical problem'. She hasn't spoken to me since.

It's the 'technical problem' that inspired this post, however. What happened was this: the editor of one of my stories - quite rightly - pointed out that the name I intended to use was remarkably similar to the name of one of the other authors in the book. Seeing that similarity would, in the case of some readers, jar them from the fictional world we were creating.

It would break the spell.

That all popped back into my head today, when I had the spell broken for me by a writer who not only used the names of real people in his story, but who was too damn clever by half about it.

I'm not going to name the writer, nor the story, nor even the medium in which I read it. What I will tell you is that the scribe concerned was writing for a predominantly American readership and must have forgotten that there are countries outside the US, with readers who'd see exactly what he was doing.

Picture the scene: a top-secret lab, from which an alien has escaped, causing all manner of problems for the organsation running the show. The hard-nosed but beautiful agent in charge takes the scientists to task. Her name is Ms Ferdinand. The first person she addresses is Doctor Rooney ...

As the verbal bashing continues, she summons a mysterious agent called Giggs, ticks off a Doctor Figo, witnesses the hypnotic brainwashing of a man called Gerrard and refers to a superior officer named Keane.

Granted most of the readers in the States (and some in Europe) won't pick up on any of that. For me, and I daresay hundreds of others, it disrupted the narrative flow completely.

Actually that's not true. I did stick with it for a while. Then the pneumatic, coldly beautiful Ms Ferdinand revealed her first name.

The clue's at the top of the post.


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