By Tom Anderson
When we think about the major popcultural phenomena that have shaped our world and spawned countless imitators—or inspired genres, if you prefer—there are a number of factors that spring to mind. We could talk about plot twists, or turns of phrase, or character archetypes, or iconic settings in either written or visual media. In this article I’m specifically going to look at character names, and in particular to reflect on how influential and much-copied character names could easily have been different. Consider the richocheting chain of consequences that would be enacted if the character later writers copied, or more charitably were inspired by, had a different name to begin with.
Though readers may like to imagine a character dropping fully formed from the author’s muse to the page in front of them, in reality many characters from many authors will have cycled through a number of possible names before the author settles on one. It is worth noting at this stage that this is one example of a disconnect, which I have noted myself from both sides of the equation, between authors and their readers. On discussing a work with an author, a reader may be surprised and even disconcerted that they, the reader, seem to know a character’s backstory or a book’s plot better than the author themselves. The reason for this, as I found out myself when I became a published author, is that all the reader has ever seen is the finished product, the ‘canon’. The author can half-remember all the dead ends of plotting and the failed experiments and the discarded ideas; to he or she, the ‘published canon’ need not necessarily stand out from the boiling mass of could’ve-beens and never-weres in their imagination.
Indeed, some authors—especially those who have toyed with an idea for years before publishing a work based on it—may struggle to adapt to the fact that publication has now set elements of their formerly flexible tale in stone, such as character names. Those whose work is published as a serial, as with most of Charles Dickens’ work, are forced to commit to many character names early on in the writing process. Others may commit the perilous act of, being unable to settle on a name for their protagonist, using a ‘temporary stand-in’. This runs the risk of the author becoming so used to that name that it becomes the final one. This happened to both Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe, which was meant as a temporary placeholder names and named after a real person. Ian Fleming also used a real person’s name for James Bond, originally because he felt the name was suitably nondescript and dull for a spy—ironically of course its image was changed into something quite different by his work!
Interestingly, Agatha Christie wrote an earlier story involving a character called James Bond who is portrayed as a dull person whom life has passed by as their defining characteristic, so clearly Fleming’s intended evocation was indeed the case earlier on. Christie is also a good example of how an earlier author’s choice of name might have changed later authors whom they inspired. One of Christie’s inspirations for Hercule Poirot was A. E. W. Mason’s fictional French detective, Inspector Gabriel Hanaud. In a running joke through the books (and intensified by TV and film adaptations), Poirot is firmly not French, but (a French-speaking) Belgian—a choice which Christie later regretted as she knew little about the country. This showed up in a self-insert parody, where the author Ariadne Oliver has a popular Finnish detective named Sven Hjerson and constantly makes mistakes about Finland when writing about him. Anyway, though Poirot is far more than just a clone of Hanaud, the rhythm of his surname was clearly inspired by the earlier detective. If Mason had chosen a different name, the little man with the magnificent moustaches and the leetle grey cells might also have arrived on our pages with a different moniker.
Undoubtedly, authors cycling through names for characters has been a factor for as long as fiction has been written, but typically surviving earlier drafts for works of fiction (and authors being asked about it) is a relatively recent phenomenon, and most examples will be from the twentieth century.
J. R. R. Tolkien was not the first fantasy author, but virtually created the modern fantasy genre in its recognisable form due to the number of his imitators and inspire-ees (a fine line). It took a long time for The Lord of the Rings to be adapted to big-budget cinema, and when the first Peter Jackon-produced film came out in 2001, some critics were almost unable to take Gandalf the wizard seriously as a character, just because almost every other wizard in fantasy had been modelled after him. For this reason, we can imagine that if Gandalf had had a different name to begin with, the whole course of fantasy might have changed. In the first draft of The Hobbit, the wizard was instead named Bladorthin—a name which survives in the final published version only as the name of an obscure king mentioned once towards the end. The name Gandalf, taken from the ‘Poetic Edda’ Norse sagas which inspired Tolkien, means ‘staff-elf’ or ‘wand-elf’ and in those works was the name of a dwarf. Indeed, in the first draft of The Hobbit there is a character named Gandalf, but he is the leader of the company of Dwarves who arrive on Bilbo’s doorstep—the character who became Thorin Oakenshield. The dragon whom the Dwarves seek to reclaim their kingdom from was named Pryftan, not Smaug. Only Bilbo Baggins arrived fully-formed from the start.
The Lord of the Rings had even more changeable names. Aragorn was almost named Ingold among many other names, and he almost married Finduilas rather than Arwen. Finduilas was also considered as the name of the character who became Galadriel, along with Rhien. Consider the number of children of hippies who were given the name Galadriel, quite apart from later works of fiction, and one realises what a change a few strokes of the pen would have made! In fact almost every member of the Fellowship of the Ring had a different name to begin with; Legolas and Gimli, the iconic rivals who become friends and would inspire the archetype of Elves versus Dwarves in fantasy works for decades to come, were originally Galdor and Burin. Boromir stands out as one of the few cases of never having his name changed.
Appropriately enough, given that The Lord of the Rings was one of many influences upon the Star Wars films, the latter were also known for cycling through endlessly changed character names (as well as very different plots, which we won’t go into here). As with Tolkien recycling ‘Bladorthin’, ‘Ingold’ and ‘Galdor’ for minor characters, George Lucas also tended to reuse rejected names rather than abandoning them. ‘Mace Windu’, the character played by Samuel L. Jackson in the prequel films, was actually the first Star Wars character name ever created—albeit in the slightly different form ‘Mace Windy’. The character of Luke Skywalker was initially given the name ‘Annikin Starkiller’. ‘Anakin’ was reused with different spelling as the name of his father, while ‘Starkiller’ has showed up repeatedly in Star Wars media ever since applied to a number of different things. The name Luke Skywalker was originally used for the general commanding the Rebel base, who eventually became Jan Dodonna instead. The Jedi were almost the Dai, and for a while were ‘the Jedi-Bendu’. Princess Leia was Zara (which, interestingly, would become a British royal name four years after the film came out!) Planet names also cycled around in a bewildering manner: the planet that became Alderaan was called ‘Granicus’, then ‘Ogana Major’, while Alderaan was the home of Imperial legions! One rejected planet name for Tatooine, Utapau, would later appear in the prequels. The leader of the Galactic Empire (who eventually became not the Emperor but Grand Moff Tarkin, memorably played by Peter Cushing) was initially called ‘Son Hhat’, then the unfortunate ‘Cos Dashit’. His title was ‘Lord of Alderaan, Consul to the Supreme Tribunal, and Ruler of the Galactic Empire’. Amid all this confusion, it is once again striking which characters arrived on the scene fully formed: Darth Vader, at least in terms of his name, arrived in the second draft, while Ben Kenobi also appears in almost his final form.
If that’s Star Wars, what of Star Trek? The ship names used in the original series were taken from aircraft carriers in the Second World War, in which Gene Roddenberry and many of the other people who worked on the show had served. The starship upon which the series was set was initially the USS Yorktown in Roddenberry’s first proposal, before being changed to Enterprise (the two names had been the names of carriers which were sister ships). Undoubtedly this name change helped the series, as Yorktown is a very parochial American name (and has little meaning to those who do not know the battle), whereas Enterprise has an intrinsic meaning with resonance even to those who don’t know about the real ships by that name. Indeed, it became so successful that no other science fiction series can use it (as Stargate SG-1 would later joke about) and those who crew the real HMS Enterprise and USS Enterprise are known for making references to the series.
After Star Trek’s first pilot with Captain Christopher Pike (played by Jeffrey Hunter) was rejected, William Shatner was cast as a new captain—but what would his name be? As later as a month before filming began, it had not been decided. A May 1965 memo from Roddenberry gives sixteen possibilities: January, Flagg, Drake, Christopher, Thorpe, Richard, Patrick, Raintree, Boone, Hudson, Timber, Hamilton, Hannibal, Neville, Kirk and North. Imagine how different later popculture would be if a different name had been chosen (and presuming Star Trek had still been as successful and influential). If the name ‘Hannibal’, for example, became ineluctably associated with a character like the Captain Kirk we know, it’s very unlikely it would have been used for a character in The A-Team or taken by Thomas Harris in 1981 for his serial killer character Hannibal Lecter. It would likely also make it difficult to study the original Hannibal of the Punic Wars without someone giggling and asking if his elephant had pointy ears!
These are just a handful of examples from fiction. A name chosen on the spur of the moment can leave unintended shadows of influence. For example, the famous ‘By the Way’ humour column by ‘Beachcomber’ in the Daily Express featured the never-ending court reports of Mr Justice Cocklecarrot and the litigous Twelve Red-bearded Dwarfs. The dwarfs’ memorable names are Scorpion de Rooftrouser, Cleveland Zackhouse, Frums Gillygottle, Edeledel Edel, Churm Rincewind, Sophus Barkayo-Tong, Amaninter Axling, Guttergorm Guttergormpton, Badly Orsonparser, Listenis Youghaupt, Molonay Tubilderborst and Farjole Merrybody. Amid this delightful piece of nonsense, the attentive reader may pick out the name Rincewind, which was appropriated by Terry Pratchett for the name of the protagonist of a book called The Colour of Magic, which spawned the wildly successful Discworld series.
So be careful what names you pick when writing fiction, as you never know—if you become successful, you may be influencing what names are picked by everyone else for years to come!
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth