What’s in a Name?

Yesterday, Life is Story reviewed Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran, a beautifully dark novel filled with interesting characters with interesting names. Today, author Marion Grace Woolley shares with us her insights into naming her characters.

The question of where authors get the names for their characters is an endlessly fascinating one. There are so many methods: look back through your family tree, flick through today’s newspaper, check your spam box and try to pick one that doesn’t sound like an adult film star…

Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran was different for me, though. The story is so steeped in the ancient folklore of Iran, in its heroes and legends, that it felt as though names held power. I knew that I needed to choose them carefully.

There is a lover in the story called Sheyda, meaning lovesick, another called Shahab, after the falling star, his lips leaving a crater of longing like a meteor, and a faithful servant called Şelale who evokes “that subtle scent of snow on the Alborz mountains, the cascade of water that was her namesake,” for her name means waterfall.

phantomoftheoperaThe biggest problem, however, was that one of the main characters did not have a name. Not that I hadn’t given him one, but that this was a prequel to a rather famous novel by Gaston Leroux, all about a phantom who later came to live beneath the Paris opera house. And Leroux had never given him a name.

Most people who have seen the movie just refer to him as OG. Those who have read the book often say that his name was Erik. Not, perhaps, the most romantically inspired name of all time, though this would seem to settle the matter if it weren’t for a single line of text:

“He [OG] said that he had no name and no country and that he had taken the name of Erik by accident.”

On the one hand, this is a fantastic boon for a writer, because he never says what the accident is, which left my imagination to run wild. Yet, at the same time, it caused a bit of a problem. What to name an unnamed character prior to the accident from which he took his name?

I didn’t want to pluck a name out of the air. I wanted to find a name that meant something to readers who love the original story as much as I do. I wanted there to be a certain power in that name.

The answer came to me whilst researching another facet of the book. The Opera Ghost is said to be hideously deformed:

“You just see two big black holes, as in a dead man’s skull. His skin, which is stretched across his bones like a drumhead, is not white, but a nasty yellow. His nose is so little worth talking about that you can’t see it side-face…”

Whilst browsing, I came across a post where someone had asked what might have caused this. One response mentioned the name Vachon, and a little further research threw up the idea that Leroux may have been inspired by a builder of that name who worked on the Opera House and who suffered a severe deformity.

There seems to be very little information on this, but, of all the names he could have had, this felt the most significant. A man who had lived long before I was born, and who had inspired a story which now inspired my own. That name deserves to live on.



mariongracewoolleyMarion Grace Woolley is the author of three previous novels and a collection of short stories.In 2009, she was shortlisted for the Luke Bitmead Bursary for New Writers. She balances her creative impulses with a career in International Development; she has worked and travelled across Africa, Australia, Armenia, and a few other places beginning with ‘A’. She is an associate member of the Society of Authors, and is currently at work on her fifth novel.


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