What’s in a name? The Pink Floyd Effect.

The Pink Floyd Effect – The process of a name becoming perfect for its subject through familiarity with that subject and/or its actions.

Names. Very powerful things. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with demonology or the occult will tell you what a powerful thing a name can be. If you know something’s true name, you have great power over it. Maybe that’s why Prince changed his name to a symbol, which is very hard to pronounce in spells – could he be a demon, hunted by occult adventurers? But I digress.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because we rescued a tiny stray kitten last week and he appears to live here now. He has a strangely large chin and I said, “He’s like Stan from American Dad.” Henceforth, the kitten’s name is Stanley. He’s very cute, really. Look:

When I mentioned this on Facebook and Twitter, people were universally besotted with him, but the reaction to his name was interesting. A lot of people thought it was a great name and many people complimented me on giving him a “proper” name. I presume they meant as opposed to Tiddles or Mr Snookums. Other people were very confused and made comments like, “Stanley? Really!?” A couple of people even pointed out that he looks like a Stanley. Which he does, of course, because that’s his name. Chicken and egg.

The name and the named grow into each other and become inseperable. I guarantee that within a few weeks, our new kitten and the name Stanley will be completely normal, at least to us. It happens in every walk of life. For example, my favourite band of all time is Pink Floyd. Stop and have a look at that name. When you hear it, you think of the band and all the amazing work they’ve done. But really? Pink Floyd? The etymology is interesting. They started out called The Tea Set, then one day found themselves on a bill with another band called The Tea Set. So Syd Barrett suggested a name he’d been keen on for a while, based on his two favourite blues musicians, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. So they played as The Pink Floyd Sound. After a few gigs they dropped Sound, but remained known as The Pink Floyd. Usually known simply as Pink Floyd since the early seventies, the definite article is still used occasionally even now. But really, when you think about it, Pink Floyd is a bloody silly name. However, it’s also awesome as it contains and references everything about one of the most seminal bands of all time.

So of course, I relate this name situation to fiction. Names become incredibly important when we’re writing. I agonise over names – it’s probably the thing that gives me the most grief when I write. I want to get names just right. I want them to fit. But the truth is, whatever name I give a character will fit if I tell the story well and write the character convincingly, because the character and the name will grow together and seem like it was always the perfect match. I call this ‘The Pink Floyd Effect‘.

thrillercastI think the important thing is to not try too hard when coming up with names for your fiction, especially if you write fantasy. Remember, the apostrophied name is so overused now that it’s become something of a joke. Characters like Drizzt Do’Urden owned the concept back in the day, but now it’s seen as overly try-hard, or extreme wankery, to include crazy apostrophied names in your fantasy fiction.

In Brent Weeks’ Night Angel Trilogy, I was initially really annoyed at the name Durzo Blint. It annoyed me because it seemed uneccessarily “fantasy”, and it still does annoy me a bit. But the name also now conjures for me everything about that character, and he’s a character I really like.

Let’s look at it from another real world example. I’ll write a name, you be aware of your immediate reaction. Ready?

Rodney King.

That’s a pretty ordinary sounding name in and of itself, but I bet you had a pretty visceral reaction to it. The man, the name and the events for which he’s known have become ingrained in our culture and the name carries a lot of power because of it.

Let’s try another one:

Errol Flynn

Calm down, ladies. Take a deep breath. Errol Flynn is actually a pretty funny name, and you might feel a bit sorry for anyone with a name like that these days. Although I do quite like the name Errol myself. But there’s no denying that it has power.

Okay, one more:

Sarah Palin.

Did you feel yourself get a bit dumber just then? Just reading or hearing the name actively destroys brain cells and enhances right wing idiocy and religious insanity. And that’s a name that could become much more powerful if the American people don’t take a moment to get their shit together. But in itself, Sarah Palin is a pretty ordinary name.

So, my point is this: Don’t over-stress the names you use, be it for your pets or the characters in your fiction. The Pink Floyd Effect will kick in with time and the name and the named will become one and the same thing. And potentially attach themselves to events people are aware of around the world.

When you’re writing your fiction, spend some time to think about the names, make sure they have a good ring to them, are easily read off the page and stuff like that. Then put your effort into writing the characters and the story as well as you possibly can. By the time you’re finished, the names you’ve chosen will be perfect.

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Agree or disagree? Please feel free to share your thoughts and examples in the comments.

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24 thoughts on “What’s in a name? The Pink Floyd Effect.

  1. I find this very interesting indeed, Alan. My name is Darcy and I am sure, it has been to my advantage during the stage of ‘my career’ that I was an English teacher. Somehow it was just better than be called ____ (do not want to offend any of your readers with the name I choose ;O).

    Currently I am trying to name a new ‘photography blog’ and business. I am still trying as the names so far suggested just do not really work. One of my fav blogs is a travel photography one called ‘Stuck in Customs’. That is just perfect and I am sure this name contributes to the success of the blog.

    Cheers
    @Darcy1968

  2. Ah, but that was a studio decision. We’ll never know. If he hadn’t changed, perhaps the male name of Marion would now be synonymous with utter manliness.

    Or not. Some things just don’t stretch that far!

  3. Too true, Alan! You can waste good creativity on trying to think up the right name for a character. Best to just call them ‘blah’ and come back to it later!

  4. I think they need a name, more than blah, but anything will do. If it doesn’t fit by end, which is unlikely, you can always replace it with something else. The Find/Replace function in Word is brilliant!

    But you’re right – don’t waste your creativity agonising over a name. I need to take this advice myself.

  5. When naming pets (and children) stand outside your house at dusk and call each choice out at the top of your lungs at least ten times. If you feel like a complete pratt calling that name, cross it off the list!

  6. Great post. It reminds me of a piece of stand-up I heard a few years back: “Sometimes I wonder if my name really is Karl, or if my parents just made it up.”

  7. Great post. It reminds me of a piece of stand-up I heard a few years back: β€œSometimes I wonder if my name really is Karl, or if my parents just made it up.”

  8. Interestingly, since you mentioned ‘Prince,’ I’d heard not too long ago that the whole name as a symbol thing was done because he had legal problems with his record company and wanted out of some contractual stuff.

    The examples you picked of names linked with associations cracked me up too. πŸ™‚

    I think it works both ways. You can get hung up on picking a name, or you can just pick one off the top of your head. If I get stuck, lots of times I’ll look at a map or watch street names as I drive and combine a couple. Sometimes you can use the name as a launching point for the character’s development. If you have a super handsome guy with the name Ralph Farthworthy, no matter how cool he his you can immediately imagine him getting picked on in school, his lunch money bullied from him, etc. Then you can see how the character reacts to that situation. Does he become withdrawn and timid and afraid, or does he rise to the challenge and kick bully butt? Who’s to say that the reason John Wayne played such ‘manly’ characters isn’t because he was picked on for having a girly name like Marion? Maybe that’s WHY he became a symbol for machismo. My point is, the name can be incidental or it can be a situation in itself that drives the character, but there’s no point in getting hung up on it. I’ve named many of my characters Bob, Mike, and Jane, but I also have a character named Oglingston Gnarlstat Spitworthy. It just depends.

    Oh, I’ll breathe now. πŸ™‚

  9. Joanna – good method. But I had a neighbour with a dog called Knickers. She used to yell that in the back yard with carefree abandon.

    Jo – love it!

    Ganymeder – Oglington Gnarlstat Spitworthy? That’s a quality name. And you make a good point. The name can indeed make the person, but that’s another example of the name and the named growing into each other.

  10. So true, I need a proper name to hang the rest of the character on. Once the name is figured out, everything else just seems to work. I’ve often pored through baby books, and road-test names with the Mrs to see what works. And then google them to make sure it’s not a celebrity type person or a politician or whatever. No dramas if the only hits are for everyday folks with Facebook pages, not so good if you’re sending famous sportsmen to their fictional deaths πŸ™‚

  11. A mate doing some beta-reading for me recently pointed out that the main character in the story had the same name as the frontman of a certain band. It’s not a massive band, but very well known in their genre. Anyway, the character had grown into that name so much by then that I couldn’t change it. But I don’t think anyone will mistake the character for the frontman. We’ll see – it’s a novelette due for publication early next year, so I’ll keep an eye on comments and see if anyone says anything. There are plenty of namesakes in the world anyway. I share a name with an old Hollywood character actor, and that’s never done me any harm. πŸ™‚

  12. A lot of the time I’ll just see something whilst I’m wandering along the street that tickles my fancy as someone typcast and earmark it for a character name as some future point. I like names that mean something, particularly surnames, and hopefully when my stuff starts getting published (Possibly next month unless someone’s spinning me a line! W00T) people will pick up on them.

    But I find novelty names only really work for bit parts. Otherwise I have to agree that the character will grow into a name as they go (Even someone like Slartibartfast) until it seems perfectly normal. Nowadays it takes me a minute to realise why people give us funny looks when we’re calling for our dog Steve.

  13. Very interesting post! How about our dog named Brian and I my hubby’s friend is Brian and whenever he comes over he feels awkward when tell stories about Brian the Dog. So whenever he stops by out home we never mention the dog LOL

  14. I think it’s a deal worth noting that if you find you don’t like the name as you’re writing the story you are free to change it…. until it does fit the character/story… πŸ˜‰

  15. As time passes, names go out of vogue. An example of this is (IMHO) the grotesque-sounding “Hortense”. Just before the turn of the previous century, this was supposedly a popular girl’s name. Though names such as “Agnes” and “Agatha” held on for several decades longer, the unfortunate geriatic “Hortense” died in a ditch somewhere probably of pneumonia and syphilis. She went crazy and might have throttled a poor passerby with a walking cane that she mistook for Satan’s hair-dresser before she drew last breath, but that is another story entirely.
    In the end, you are writing for an audience and this will dictate the names you will use in a story. They will need to be relevant to the themes of the story itself, but shouldn’t be at the expense of reading aloud. As Alan mentioned earlier, trying too hard will only make you look silly. With all the names out there, there is more than enough options for you to use in your work of fiction.

  16. Good post. I’m often in the same boat: while I can sometimes just whip up a character name on the spot and roll with it, I far more often find myself spending a lot of time finding just the right one. And it does matter, absolutely. A Wilbur wouldn’t be able to be a confident leder in a zombie invasion; an Aaron would. Lenny wouldn’t be a serial killer; Leonard would. Voldemort would lose his street cred if his name had been Ted. Depeche Mode had originally planned on calling themselves The Glow Worms… not quite the same panache, I would say. So while any name could at times fit the bill and grow along with the character (or band), the flipside for me is that certain names fundamentally affect the character and his actions/abilities/characteristics.

  17. Reay – I agree with you to some degree, but as I tried to point out in this post, there’s a lot of power in association. For example, Depeche Mode had a very unique sound. If they had have been called the Glow Worms, that would seem quite normal for their sound by now.

    Getting a name just right can be a winner, but getting the character right is more important. Then the name will grow to fit, in my experience.

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