Few do not know Shakespeare’s immortal scene beginning with Juliet’s soliloquy to the moon as she pines for Romeo. What’s in a name? she wonders. Romeo can just give up his name, which is what separates them, and all will be well for them. This is a brilliantly crafted passage with multiple themes, chief of which is identity and how much our name is or is not a part of us. Today, I’m not here to to analyze the passage, but instead to discuss the question ‘what’s in a name’ as it pertains to fictional characters.
This is an important question for every writer who has ever written a story, whether it’s a contemporary coffee shop romance or a historical fiction tale of Ancient Roman wars.
Names are vital. Names have power.
As humans, we identify things with names, especially people. Apple. Dog. Chair. Italy. Every single one of those words conjures a picture in your mind.
Think of five people. The image of each that just appeared in your mind, or the memories that came, are tied to that person’s name.
(NOTE: I am aware that there are those who think primarily by face first and then name or who can’t remember names and only think of colors or auras or something else associated with a person, but in general, name plays a major part in identification and memory.)
Think about yourself. Think about how you got your name. Did your father choose it? Your mother? Are you named after a family member, because they liked the name, or because of the meaning of the name?
Would you be the same person if you had a different name? Probably your personality would remain the same. But everyone who knows you would think of you slightly differently than they do now. In fact, most people who know you can’t imagine you with a different name.
Most of us have at least one name we strongly dislike, usually because we knew someone (or more than one someone) with that name who was an unpleasant person. For me, there’s one male name I strongly dislike because I’ve known 3 guys with it and every single one of them was someone I disliked. Then there are those common names which you think of ambiguously because they have multiple people associated with them, some pleasant, others not so much. (How many Sarahs have you known? I’m at thirteen now, I think.)
Now look at your writing. Why did you choose those names for each character? Within the story world itself, what is the reason for their name? Are they named after a family member? A king? A hero? A former friend who became an enemy? An object? A hope that they would become what their name signifies? A prophecy?
It’s fine to name a character something just because you like the name. But your story is going to have more depth if you have an explanation within the story universe for why they are named that. Even if the subject never comes up within the story, you as the author knowing the explanation will subtly influence and improve your story.
Irony can also be used to hilarious effect in naming. It’s been close to a decade since I read any of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne series, but I still remember how, in one of the later books someone is telling a story of how they knew a mother who named her daughters Faith, Hope, and Charity. ‘Faith didn’t believe in anything, Hope was a pessimist, and Charity was a miser.’ (My quotation might not be strictly accurate but you understand the gist.)
Historical fiction authors, you need to know that your character bears a name that is period-correct. Don’t name someone in Regency England ‘Brittney’ or someone in 1700’s Spain ‘Chandra’.
Fantasy authors, it’s great to have unique and unusual names, but make sure that:
a) they’re pronounceable. Lots of hyphens or apostrophes makes it harder to pronounce names and if someone can’t pronounce a name in their head, they’re going to have a harder time remembering it. (Unless they think ‘that awfully crazily named person in x book’. Now I don’t know about you, but for me, I’d rather have people able to remember my characters by name.)
b) you give the original name a reason, a meaning, a backstory
Regarding b), for example, in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series, male dragonriders names are abbreviated with an apostrophe after they become bond with a dragon. The explanation for this is that when dragons spoke to their humans, they slurred their names, and eventually male (and some female, I think) dragonriders began adopting the slurred forms as honorifics. It signified they were a dragonrider, which set them apart from the other Pernese.
Historical fantasy writers, especially those writing time travel stories, if your hero/ine has a modern name, take that into account when they go back/forward in time. When going back in time, they might want to consider shortening it, or changing it to something more suitable for the time period, or– at the very least– be prepared to explain it to everyone they meet.
Writers of contemporary genres, you have a much broader range from which to choose, but you should still have a reason within the story universe for why a character bears the name they do. ‘My mother loved this name, but I wanted to change it so many times as a kid because it’s so old-fashioned.’ ‘My parents had a twisted sense of humor.’
All names have associations. You cannot separate a person from their name. The same is true of your characters.
What are your favorite ways of choosing characters’ names? What are the stories behind their names?
Stop by on Friday to watch me hack my way through the swamp of more fantasy subgenres. And visit my personal blog tomorrow to find out how I apply these naming guidelines to my own stories.
Until then, Merry Writing… and may all of your names be memorable!