What’s in a name?

Greetings, peeperas y peeperos —

Hope you’re having a groovy day. I got to thinking about names and characters after the Royal Baby’s was announced. His name is still garnering some discussion on social media. “George” has a long history in the British monarchy, so that wasn’t too surprising. And most of the comments about it were along the lines of “good name,” “strong,” “masculine.” That sort of thing. The prince’s next two names are “Alexander” and “Louis,” which also got approval from the peasant peanut gallery around the world. Same reasons. When he takes the throne, he’ll be another “King George” (though I rather like “King Alex” myself).

Anyway, point being, lots of people got into the name game with the Royal Baby hoop-dee-doo. People were probably betting in Vegas on which names William and Kate would decide on, and I saw lots of discussion on social media about naming the baby and what names would be good and which ones would kind of suck. That is, not sound “royal” or “kingly” enough.

Which just goes to show you, names are important. Remember that Johnny Cash song? “A Boy Named Sue“? A lot of baggage came with that name. The kid spent his time seeking revenge on a father who abandoned him but managed to name him “Sue.” And in a society as gendered as ours, we all know what happens when a dude gets what’s considered a girl’s name. He’s considered “less than” a man, somehow “feminized” (as if that’s such a bad thing) whereas a woman with what’s considered a guy’s name doesn’t have to deal with the same issues. But gender hierarchies and social structures aren’t really the gist of my conversation here.

Rather, I’d like to talk about how names are indeed important in fiction.

So come on. Join me.

source: mumsnet

Okay, so why are the names of your characters important? Different writers probably have different thoughts on this, but here are mine:

1) Names can be a reflection of the type of character. Sort of a subtle characterization device. Nicknames, too. Writing noir? Your gangster hit man might have the nickname “Icepick.” Doesn’t carry the same connotation, does it, if the star quarterback on the high school football team is nicknamed “Icepick”? So context, too, can add or subtract baggage from a name.

2) Names can reflect a particular historical era — so if you’re writing historical fiction, for example, it’s important that you don’t name somebody in the 18th century “Jerry” or “Lisa.” Do your research on names. Graveyards and cemeteries are good places to find more historical-sounding names.

3) Names can trip up a reader if you’re not careful. Especially in spec fic. A few years back, I read a fantasy novel that I couldn’t finish because the name of one of the main characters was about 18 letters long. Something like Iereddaleatteret. Seriously. Like that. I’m not disputing that in some alternate universe there might be names like that. But in mine, in the here and now, in this fiction that some author wrote, that name. . .well, it sucks. It disrupts pacing and flow. And no, I do not wish to get into the WTF aspects of how a publisher would allow such a name to inhabit a work of fiction. Suffice it to say, this name got published.

4) Names reflect the social circles in which people live, work, and move. I’m not disputing that there are some folks out there who have names like Talyn Rainstorm and CodiMaree Lockjaw. But do you really know somebody named that? Every once in a while, sure. But inhabiting your novel with people who all have names like that might prove distracting for a reader. Especially if you’re writing, say, a romance set in the world of foodies. Or even in a place like Chicago. Try to get your names to reflect not just the personalities of your characters, but the contexts in which they exist.

5) Keep track of the names you use. Especially if you’re writing a series. You want to have names that are easy for people to remember and associate with a particular character. It’s okay, every once in a while, to have a character pop up in one of your books that has the same name as a character in an earlier book. A name like “Tom,” for example. That’s a common enough name that it’s not going to throw a reader off, especially if the characters are two completely different secondary characters. Try not to have a character with the same name as your MC, though. Unless you’re going for some comic relief or, in the case of a thriller or mystery, you’re trying to set up the MC for a fall at the hands of the nefarious character with the same name. Twins stories are good for name-play like that.

So, yes. Names ARE important. They can help with characterization and setting, and even be plot devices (like a boy named Sue, who spent his life seeking revenge because his dad left him with that name).

And now, here are some links to take you on further explorations into how writers name their characters and why they might choose the names they do.

Writer’s Digest: “How To Give Your Character the Perfect Name
The Seven Rules of Picking Names for Fictional Characters

The Write Practice: “How to Name Your Characters

The Script Lab: “Name that Character: Top 10 Tips

Robbie Blair: “11 Tips on Naming Your Character

And my last tip? Go ol’ skool. Get a phone book and have a look through the residential names.

Happy writing, happy reading, happy weekend.

2 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. Can you think of any great or classic books with a main character named Sandra? Hmmmm. What genre/period is that, or is it even worthy?

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