If you read my last post, you’ll know I’m working my way through Trollope’s Barsetshire series of novels. They are enjoyable on many levels, not least in the array of colourfully-named characters with which he populates his stories. Both Trollope and Dickens share a prediliction for comedic monikers; it’s one of the things which makes their work memorable.
Framley Parsonage, the fourth in the Barsetshire series, does not disappoint in this respect.
I’m only half way through the book, but so far I have encountered Mrs Letitia Quiverful, The Reverand Obadiah Slope, Mr Closerstil, Mr Buggins and most glorious of all, the Rev. Tobias Tickler. As with all Trollope’s novels, some, if not all, of these wonderful characters appear elsewhere in the series, with varying degrees of prominence.
Other intriguing names to appear in earlier Barsetshire novels include: Doctors Bumpwell and Fillgrave, who both appear in Barchester Towers along with Mr Lookaloft and Sir Omicron Pie; Dr Thorne gives us Sir Rickety Giggs, Mr Reddypalm, Sir Abraham Haphazzard, Mr Nearthewinde and, most memorably of all, a chap who goes by the name of Neversaye Die.
This cast of characters are guaranteed to raise a smile, if only by their eccentric names alone. Naturally these names are no mere accidents, (Trollope was, after all, a skilled writer, a best seller in his own time); they frequently befit their owners to a tee, or, at least, are suggestive of traits in their personalities. And it’s not just people, Trollope frequently employs comedy for his minor place names: Creamclotted Hall in Devon for example. Subtle: not. Funny: oh yes.
So far so good.
But wait. Having now read over 1,500 pages of Trollope, I’ve noticed that the above-named persons do not take centre stage in his stories. They shine, certainly, flitting around in the background, occasionally coming to the fore, but they are never central to the plot. The main characters, those with whom each novel is chiefly concerned, carry rather more prosaic names: Mr Harding (The Warden); The Proudies and Grantlys (Barchester Towers); Doctor Thorne and the Greshams (Doctor Thorne); and the Robarts and Luftons of Framley Parsonage.
These are the people we are destined to remember; they are the ones Trollope fleshed out with substance and depth of character. We share their journeys, their triumphs and disasters; we see them succeed or fail, enjoy happiness or despair, we watch them learn or fail to understand. These are characters to be remembered for what they do or what they achieve; we love them for the things they say and for the lessons they learn. Trollope didn’t need to give these people amusing names; they are memorable enough without them. And there lies his skill: if a writer gives a character enough interest, taking them on a journey and investing them with spirit and emotion, they don’t need their name to support them. But by giving his cast of minor characters creative and comedic names, Trollope achieves something else: he builds a picture, a story, a history for them, without the need for pages of explanation. They act rather like scenery on a stage, supporting the main action and providing an extra layer of depth.
These are skills I’m getting to grips with in my own writing. I currently have a cast of principals and a supporting chorus of minor characters for my comedy adventure aimed at 8-12 year olds. The smaller roles I have filled with names which make me laugh (I hope they’ll make other people laugh one day). However, I’m not sure about my main characters. I want them to be memorable for the things they do, not just for their names; but then, I don’t particularly wish to burden them with bland titles either.
J K Rowling pitched her three principles’ names perfectly: Harry Potter (could be any one’s name, plucked from obscurity to achieve great things); Hermione Granger (just a bit unusual, sounds a bit clever, posh even); Ronald Weasley (again, not particularly memorable for the name alone, but sounds just a bit like he might get picked on, has no apparent brawn, but ends up a hero none the less).
That’s a skill I’ve yet to learn. I hope by the time I’ve reached the end of the first draft, my main characters will have either grown into the names I have already burdened them with, or they will have suggested a change themselves. Memorable for being interesting rather then for sounding interesting: that’s what I hope to achieve. Trollope does it; Rowling does too. My minor characters can prance about all they like with their odd-sounding, look-at-me names; they are the comic relief, the scene change, front-of-cloth distractions, to be enjoyed whilst the main cast reset themselves for the next chapter. A main cast which must stand (or fall) by their deeds alone.
So, back to work everyone. Quiet please in the chorus, settle down in the wings, spotlight centre-stage and action.
* Pictures by Millais from Cornhill Magazine. Words by flyingscribbler.