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What's in a Name

Photo: Tom Cruise in the movie Top Gun - not me (Source Movie library).

There are two questions I am often asked:

‘Why do you use a pseudonym?’ and

‘How do you think up names for your characters?’

These two questions might seem unrelated, but they are probably more similar than you might think.

Let me tackle the first one. There were a number of issues going through my mind when I decided to use a pseudonym. The first was the number of different spellings I have seen of the name on my birth certificate. The second was that a pseudonym allows you to differentiate yourself and create an author personality that is what you want it to be, rather than what it is or expected to be. My day job can cross into party political areas. I didn’t want my day job to restrict what I can write about. Some topics expressed in ‘Darwin’s Wake’ are certainly political. They aren’t necessarily party political, and I think I have avoided the potential of any perceived impact in this way, but just in case I’ve used a pen name.

What I didn’t appreciate in selecting of my pseudonym (a combination of the first names of myself and my son) was that there were already people out there with the name Pete Mitchell. To my wife’s perpetual amusement one of the other Pete Mitchells is Tom Cruise’s character in 'Top Gun'. I don’t think there is anyone I have met who mixes up me and Tom Cruise (sadly), but the coincidence was just that, not a deliberate reference to ‘Maverick’.

There are even other authors named Pete Mitchell. I hope there is little chance of confusing my book and those of other Peter Mitchells, who have produced books such as ‘I Wanna Talk to You: Outside the Ordinary’ (self-published, 2015), ‘Lead or Fail: The Essential Principles For Peak Performance Through Leading And Influencing Others (Anderson-Nobel, 2009) and ‘Modern Day Heroes: In Defense [sic] of America’ (Anderson-Nobel, 2004).

Photo: Pete Mitchell, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1978 - not me (Source Nobel Prize Foundation)

Pete Mitchell was also the recipient of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his contribution to the understanding of biological energy transfer through the formulation of the chemiosmotic theory”. Whoops, that sounds a bit like my day job breaking through. Pete Mitchell, aka “The Stratmaster” is also a British guitar aficionado who played with Muddy Waters and others in the 1970s before forming his own band Special Brew.

Photo: Pete Mitchell, aka 'The Stratmaster'- not me. (Source: Delta boogie)

I figure I’m in good company with others who have chosen to use pseudonyms. Authors Mark Twain, Agatha Christie, Lewis Carroll and Dean Koontz have all indulged in a bit of name changing. Can you guess what these author’s alternative names might be? See the end of this article for the solution.

Photo: Agatha Christie (Source: Google Images)

The art of choosing a pseudonym and character names is a common practice that combines creativity, pragmatism, and personal preferences. There are reasons beyond those that I have divulged. These might include:

Anonymity. Writing under a pseudonym allows authors to explore different genres, controversial themes, or deeply personal subjects without the constraint of their established expected persona. Mark Twain, for instance, chose his pen name to separate his humorous and adventurous works from his more serious writings under his given name.

Gender Ambiguity. The literary world has historically been unreasonably dominated by male authors. To overcome this, some women have used pen names to bypass gender bias. Mary Ann Evans adopted the pen name George Eliot to ensure her work was taken seriously. Miles Franklin, author of 'My Brilliant Career’ and other novels, was in fact Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin. She also published under the unusual pen names of Brent of Bin Bin and An Old Bachelor. For similar reasons, J.K. Rowling opted for gender-neutral initials to appeal to a wider audience for her Harry Potter books.

Photo: A Portrait of Geoge Elliot, aka Mary Evans (Source: Book cover by Leslie Stephens).

Cultural and Ethical Considerations. Authors may choose pen names to navigate cultural and ethical sensitivities or to shed light on issues that have special personal significance. An Australian example of this, albeit pushed too far, was Helen Dale’s (also known as Helen Darville) use of the pen name Helen Dimidenko and her novel ‘The Hand that Signed the Paper.’ Though the novel was critically acclaimed Dimidenko’s quest for authenticity resulted in her claiming to be from a Ukrainian family whose family had collaborated with the Nazis in The Holocaust, none of which was true. The novel won the Vogel Prize and the Miles Franklin Award in 1994, but Dimidenko’s extension to a totally fraudulent background and personality was roundly condemned. Her misrepresentation was billed as one of the greatest Australian literary hoaxes in a 2005 Sydney Morning Herald.

Photo: The Hand that Signed the Paper, Helen Demidenko, aka Helen Darville, aka Helen Dale. (Source Google).

Creating names for character is even more fun. Characters names can provide hints at the tone of the character described. I have a character (spoiler alert) named Paul Belconnen in a forthcoming work. A pretty innocuous name you might say, but the name is derived from Bella Cohen the name of a prostitute in the literary classic ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce. Belconnen is also the name of a suburb in Canberra, the seat of Australia’s parliament. So, an interesting intersection you might think. Paul is a reference to pall or appalling. With this background you can imagine what the character is like.

Just as a real name might influence a person's identity, character names play a vital role in shaping fictional personas. Names often carry connotations and associations that provide subtle insights into a character's traits, behaviours, or motivations. For instance, the cunning and elusive character of Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series derives his first name from the Latin word for "strict" or "severe," mirroring his personality. Snape sounds like snake, the totem of the House of Slytherin. Severus Snape of Slytherin creates a luscious alliteration where the serpentine movement of a reptile is brought to mind.

Photo: Alan Rickman as Severus Snape in Harry Potter (Source Pinterest).

Sam Spade, the fictional character in Dashiell Hammett’s ‘The Maltese Falcon’ and Roland Redman, from my novel ‘Darwin’s Wake’ are two other examples of alliteration in character names.

Photo: Promotional movie poster for Lolita (Source: Movie archives)

'Lolita' the book by Vladimir Nabokov that is loved or loathed in equal measure, has wonderfully creative character names. Humbert Humbert - is taking alliteration to the extreme. Not just words starting with the same letter or similar sounding words, but exactly the same word! Even the titular character’s name, Lolita, is superbly crafted. The narrator instructs the reader how to move the tongue to properly pronounce her name by breaking into syllables. As one reviewer commented, Nabokov not only got inside his head with the story but was physically inside his mouth with the instruction on how to pronounce Lolita.

Character names can allude to a certain ethnicity or period of history. Like many things names go in and out of fashion. The most popular names for children in Australia in 2022 were Oliver and Charlotte. This contrasts with David and Michelle the most popular names in 1970. Neither even make the top twenty list in 2022. It was even reported that the name Damien quickly fell out of favour after the 1976 movie ‘The Omen’.

Photo: Promotional movie poster for The Omen (Source: Movie Archives)

Some names are purely made up yet enter our language and take on a life of their own. Dracula, Sherlock and Scrooge need no introduction. Pen names, pseudonyms and character names are lots of fun to create.

Solution to the author names:

  • Mark Twain’s original name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens. The significance of ‘Mark Twain’ was that it was a riverboat term meaning "safe water," reflecting his love for the Mississippi River and his beginnings as a steamboat pilot.

  • Agatha Christie used the name Mary Westacott to publish six romance novels. She was credited with stating that she wanted to write in the romance genre so that she could explore human psychology to a greater depth than with her crime novels.

  • Lewis Carroll’s original name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. ‘Lewis Carroll’ is the translation of his first and middle names into their Latin equivalents.

  • Davids Axton is one of the many names that Dean Kootz has used. His intent was to write in different genres and not saturate the market or confusing his fans by works that they perceive as being outside of his franchise area. He has also uses names such as Aaron Woolf, Brian Coffey, Deanna Dwyer and Owen West.

How many did you guess?

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Peter McCafferty
Peter McCafferty
Aug 19, 2023

I would have thought Brad Pitt more than Tom Cruise!

Peter McCafferty
Peter McCafferty
Nov 23, 2023
Replying to

Sadly, more often I'm mistaken for Steve Martin. Not as funny - but the same barber!

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