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Sunday 26 October 2008

The Nominal Emoticon.

If you want a crash course in humility – publish a novel. In the last couple of days I have been asked if my main character is called Cotton because a) he absorbs atmosphere and information or because b) he ‘cottons’ on.

No, no, this is entirely fair and my response - that the character just came to me as Cotton - is beginning to sound rather ethereal, even to me. What was I thinking of?

Well, first off, I don’t think of Cotton as quite a hero. He is not Richard Hannay from The Thirty-Nine Steps. Hannay is a good name. The nearest word to Hannay is probably ‘handy’ – sometimes used in Edinburgh to denote anything between ‘knowledgeable’ to ‘useful.’

Against that, I didn’t, as I understand some writers do, scour obituaries or telephone directories for a likely sounding name. A Laidlaw, perhaps. Or a John Deed. And I wasn’t looking for something odd or puzzling like Rebus. I read somewhere that James Bond came from the author of a book on Jamaican birds on Ian Fleming’s shelves.

I suppose Mike Hammer as a hero is fairly direct. Poirot combines pear and harlequin. Sam Spade will eschew adjectives. Philip Marlowe is knight-like if possibly not at Deptford, though Philip may hint at great expectations.

George Smiley was way before emoticons.

And that I suppose is the thing. The main character’s name is a nominal emoticon, whether the writer is thinking of that or not. I don’t think of Peter as a strong name in English. It may mean ‘rock’ (see petrified) but it doesn’t sound hard. Cotton has a little more bite to it. Peter Cotton together? A name the character could grow into.

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