The Fascination of a Name

rolodexIt’s a shame that we don’t get to choose our own names. At different points in my life I wanted to change my name to something that had meaning for me. (Thank the stars I didn’t—I can’t imagine going through life now as “Morgana” just because I read The Mists of Avalon one too many times.)

But when it comes to writing, I get to name people whatever I want. I’m at the point in my WIP where I am thinking hard about whether or not the working names I have been using as placeholders are my characters’ real names. I’m working on a contemporary re-telling of an epic poem, so I’m pretty much stuck with some names—but others I get to have fun with.

Sometimes the working name I choose turns out to be just right. But sometimes a name in my literary Rolodex ends up feeling off for some reason. Here are some things that I’m considering as I narrow down my choices:

Personal history: I could take the name of my tyrannical elementary-school French teacher and apply it to the mythical hag in my WIP. Or I could name my protagonist after that cool barista who always remembers how I take my coffee. A word to the wise: read up on libel law before you go naming your villain after an evil boss or a malicious ex-boyfriend.

Sound and emotion: The sound of a name can sometimes evoke a feeling. Try reading your characters’ names out loud—do the s sounds make you suspicious of your character? Do the big, broad o’s make him seem gregarious and wise? Do first-name, last-name combinations of single syllables, like Jane Doe, make your character seem anonymous or ineffectual?

Alliteration or assonance: This can be a fun, although potentially fatally distracting trick. You may like the sound of Suzie Schwartzman, Angelina Alomar, or Peter Pumpkineater, but, by golly, you better have a reason for it. Some duplication of sounds can be pleasing and realistic, but too much can be hard for a reader to get past.

Connotation: There are some names that carry the weight of historical, literary, religious or mythological meaning. Not just the biggies—like Moses, Adolf or Osama—but also seemingly benign names like Adam, Dorothy, Diana, Russell, Carrie, Percival, Harry, or Kate can mean different things to different readers, depending on geography, age, or even level of media savvy. The well-read writer will recognize this and either combat the connotations or use them to her advantage.

Trends: I’m sure at some point, names like Gertrude, Matilda, Eunice and Harold were considered the baby names of the year. In the future, we’ll look back and wonder why there were so many children named Justin or Emma, or why someone chose to inflict their offspring with something like Apple or Moroccan. You probably have a sense of what names are fads and which are classics, so go with your gut—and turn on E! once in a while.

Hidden messages: I’m reminded of my third-year seminar in American literature, and a particular class in which we were studying Henry James’s The Bostonians. When the class was asked about James’s choice of naming one his characters Olive, one classmate said, “Maybe James is telling his character, who is pretty repressed, to “O, live!” The rest of the class laughed, but I thought he was on to something.

Whether your goal is to find a name that is contemporary, classic and connotation-free, or to give your reader insight into your story by choosing a name with many layers of meaning, don’t take naming lightly.

How have you had fun with names in your work?



Filed under Writing ideas

4 responses to “The Fascination of a Name

  1. I am obsessed with names. For me, not being able to name any more real people in this lifetime is the biggest drawback to not having another child.

    So yes. I love to name my characters.

    However, I’ve found that sometimes, just to get through a scene, I’ll toss in a name (a working name, as you suggested) and then later realize I don’t like it.

    When this happens to you, are you successful in changing the name? I did once EARLY on with a main character, but in another work I felt like I couldn’t by the end of the novel. Even though I didn’t love some of the names…I’d worked with them so long, they stuck.

    I guess the lesson there is to choose wisely in the early stages of your writing and not regard a name as a throwaway detail.

    And I think O, live is brilliant 😉

  2. Great topic! I have this resource and it’s a terrific in-depth look into character naming, check out The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon [Writers Digest Books, 2005, ISBN 978-1582972954]. Along with a list of names it features an essay on the ten major naming guidelines, with plenty of examples. Here’s a link:

  3. I love this. I like to visit places based on their names. I’ve holidayed in Unawatuna (Sri Lanka) and Luang Prabang (Laos). I’d love to go to Addis Ababa. Even Alice Springs. It’s so optimistic…

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