Ian McMillan: Game of the name

It all began for me many years ago with a pile of Happy Families cards, I reckon; with Mr Bun, the Baker and his lovely wife Mrs Bun and their two children, Master Bun and Miss Bun. Or there's Mr Plant, the Gardener and the Plant wife and the Plant kids. From playing endless games of Happy Families on a soaking summer holiday with the rain paradiddling on the caravan roof, the young reader (in this case, me) learns about the way that the name of a fictional character can influence the way they behave. In other words, there's not much point being a baker called Mr Plant, and in further words, nominative determinism.

Ian McMillan

Ah, I love nominative determinism! In straightforward terms, it means that the name you’re given can mysteriously have a profound influence on the job you do, so that if you’re born Frank Leake you’ll probably end up becoming a plumber. Nobody has ever proved that it works in real life, but it can certainly work in fiction. Remember The Good Life, where the green character played by the late Richard Briers was called Tom Good? Of course the name helped the pun in the title to resonate, but I’m sure that Tom Good was meant to be good. His name defined him, and because he was fictional his name manipulated our reaction to the things he did.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and perhaps nominative determinism in fiction began with Pilgrim’s Progress with the characters that the main protagonist Christian meets being called things like Pliable and Stubborn, their names doing exactly what they say on the tin; then I think the high point of this kind of nomenclature was in 17th century restoration comedy with characters called Sir John Brute or Mr Constant or Mr Heartfree, and the probably apocryphal (well, I can’t find her anywhere) Mistress Goodbody.

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Fiction for young people is the kind of area where you’ll most often find this kind of naming, and the Mr Men and Little Miss books by Roger Hargreaves are nominative determinism to the nth degree, with Mr Bump and Little Miss Sunshine being unlikely to become window cleaners or purveyors of bad news respectively.

So where does that leave the writer, like me, who is constantly creating new people to put in stories or plays but who wants to be a bit more subtle than calling a fictional robber Charlie Crook or a nervous girl Betty Blush because these days I like to think we’re a little more sophisticated than we were in John Bunyan’s time? There’s no point calling a character who delivers pints of semi-skimmed Ian McMilkbottle but I could call him Ian McWhite because, well, milk is white. That works for me. Just about.

It’s not as easy as it looks, this nominative determinism! Happy Families, anyone?