What’s in a name?

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed a certain baby-faced Detective Constable Stuart MacBride pops up in Natural Causes and is firmly part of the team for The Book of Souls. Fans of gritty and darkly humorous crime fiction may also be aware that there is an author writing Aberdeen-based books who has a very similar name. Could they, I am frequently asked, be related?

Well, yes. Sort of. Stuart and I first met in Aberdeen sometime in an earlier millennium. We had both been lured in by a flier pinned up in the local comic shop, promising fame and fortune to any who would contribute to a new publication that was being put together. It was called From the Sublime… (and that ellipsis was very important – never miss it off no matter how complicated it makes your punctuation.) It was a fanzine, let’s not be too precious about it. Based on comics, Manga, SF, Fantasy and Role-playing Games. Pretty much anything, really. To give you some idea of how long ago this was, it never made it to the internet. Such a thing existed then, but in an embryonic form. Blogs were nothing more than the fevered imaginings of the drug-addled, social media a misspelling of the left-wing press.

But I digress. I was trying to make it in the world as a writer of comics. The problem was I knew no artists, and Aberdeen was far removed from the creative centre of things, wherever that might have been. So the arrival of From the Sublime… was a godsend. Mike McLean, co-founder and editor, who now runs the splendid Asylum Books and Games, introduced me to a young, talented and beardy artist, and we collaborated on what was meant to be the best comic ever. Alas, the rest of the world didn’t understand the genius of As if by Magic, which wasn’t a piss take of Mr Benn at all. Honest.

Stuart had dreams of being a writer, and concentrated more on that. As decisions go it was probably a good one, even though he is a very talented artist too – annoying fellow. From the Sublime… didn’t last long – the cost of producing it on borrowed photocopiers and the sadly limited Aberdeen readership meant it only lasted a couple of years. Several later-moderately-famous people cut their writing/artistic teeth on it, though. Who knows, maybe one day the BBC will do one of those family tree things about it. Or maybe not.

But nevertheless, that is how I met Stuart MacBride, and we’ve been good friends ever since. I even ushed at his wedding – something that involved a rubber chicken, if memory serves.

For many years we were both unpublished authors, seeking the attention of agents and editors and giving each other mutual support and feedback. He’d show me his and I’d show him mine, as it were. He’s dropped me into a couple of his books – you might even spot me striding out in a natty suit in one frame of As if by Magic. It seemed only fair when I started writing the Inspector McLean books that I return the favour. That DS MacBride is baby-faced, his chin bereft of beard, is simply intended to confuse the Russians, as my mother would say.

And then we get to The Book of Souls. Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that in this book there is middle-aged psychologist and criminal profiler who goes by the name of Matt Hilton. Some of you may have read thrillers by a writer with a remarkably similar name. Could they, perhaps, be related?

Well, the answer to that one is no. It’s purely coincidental. I wrote the first draft of The Book of Souls in 2007, before Mr Hilton hit the headlines and the bestseller lists. Like many of my characters where the name is not particularly important, I came up with it by taking the first name of a friend (Matthew Power, as it happened in this case), and then choosing something at random for the surname. Thus Matt Hilton was born.

I met the real Mr Hilton at the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate in 2008. He didn’t seem particularly upset at having his name used, so I didn’t bother changing it. There’s every chance he’ll pop up again from time to time as a psychological thorn in McLean’s side.

Tony McLean himself was originally a John, until I realised that the Bruce Willis character in the Die Hard movies is John McClane – which is almost as bad a way of misspelling it as MacClean’s toothpaste, and that’s a pun. The McLean part of his name comes from my partner, Barbara, who has put up with my nonsense for far longer than I deserve.

Some writers put a great deal of thought into the naming of characters, and it’s important not to be too flippant about it. Jonathan Okolo from Natural Causes spent several drafts as Mr Makeupaname, which given that he was meant to be African (for reasons that were lost in the final draft), almost worked. I was advised not to call him that in the end, and spent a happy afternoon searching the internet for common surnames from West Africa instead.

Mostly I think the names of characters are important but not crucial. It’s what the other characters call them that matters, and the interactions between them. So Grumpy Bob is Robert Laird, but no-one calls him that. He’s ‘Grumpy’ Bob because it has a pleasing rhythm to it, and he’s generally speaking the least grumpy fellow you’re likely to meet. People would even refer to him as Grumpy Bob whilst he was in earshot, and he’s well aware of the nickname, revels in it even.

John Needham inevitably became ‘Needy’ and that largely wrote his character for me. Perhaps this was a case of my subconscious doing the work my conscious should have been doing, but the dependence on his father, the resentment at being sidelined from a promising career as a detective because of an injury in the line of duty, the stress of being the last of his line, all fed into his obsession with Donald Anderson. His whole character developed from that nickname.

At least in the UK, very few people below a certain age will ever have heard of Dagwood Bumstead from the US comic strip Blondie, but the name is suitably derogatory in its sound – that initial ‘Dag’ – that the contempt behind it is obvious. It’s also a play on the common mispronunciation of Duguid, which should be said as ‘Do good’ but often comes out as ‘Dug weed’ or something similar. The nickname leaves us in no doubt as to the general contempt for Charled Duguid.

I’m currently working on the next McLean book, The Hangman’s Song. Or at least I should be, rather than wasting time writing inane posts here. A few new characters crop up in this one, and as yet I haven’t really given any thought to their names at all. Perhaps I’d better start thinking a bit harder about that. Or maybe I’ll just go and do a mash-up of names from all my facebook friends.

One Response to What’s in a name?

  1. Seumas Gallacher August 30, 2012 at 11:57 am #

    Great post, that man.. liked the trawling of the internet names from certain geographies… i’ve done that several times, mostly I suppose ending up with the neo-Slavic or Cryllic versions of ‘Jones’ or “Smith” … more power to your pen, Sire … cheers ..most enjoyable

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