What’s In A Name?

As we’ve been reading submissions for our podcast, I am noticing themes between beginning writers and ones who are more experienced. Naming characters becomes increasingly important.

When I think of characters that I remember most clearly, I think of Kilgore Trout, from Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. I think of Holden Caulfield. Atticus Finch is another one, although I’ve never actually read To Kill a Mockingbird. They’re names that are both distinctive and perfect for the character. If I write the name Hermoine, you might know the character I’m thinking of, or Katniss, Tintin, Sherlock, Fagin, or Ramona. They are distinctive. There is only one Sherlock, and if you had a child named Sherlock, everyone would know who you named him after.

I’m not saying that you can’t have a distinctive character with a plain name. Jane Eyre is an extraordinarily plain name, but when paired with her last name it is distinctive enough. Maybe you want a character whose first name is Jack. Now, it seems like Jack is a go-to for strong male characters, and I’ve used it myself, but it doesn’t conjure any specific character for me.

I suspect what authors are doing is to try and make the name bland so that readers can more easily empathize with them. Maybe I don’t know an Aloysius, but I know a Bill. Heck, Bill Gates is one of the richest people on the planet, but that doesn’t mean he would be a good character.

Here’s the point. Think about it. Really decide upon a character’s name. I know you want to name characters after people you know and respect, but you’re writing fiction. I was reading a piece that had a detective character named Iris, and I thought it was so cool because the iris is part of your eye, so it fit the character perfectly, and even though I know an Iris and while it’s slightly uncommon it’s not unheard of, but I remembered it. It stuck in my head for its perfection. You don’t have to name your characters wacky names in order to make them memorable, but you have to put serious thought into it.

In The Real World Monitor, the main character’s name was Nate Crossfield. Nate was distinctive enough for a bit of an everyman, and his wife, Brooke, had a name change after the first draft because I thought Brooke embodied her much better. The other, and arguably the most memorable character in the novel, was Edgar Catafalque. I’ve held onto the name Edgar for decades, trying it here and there, as I love the name, but it fit the faceless man in my novel perfectly, the fit of an older name, very distinctive, and slightly strange.

You can go to the root or latin-based words, sometimes, but I think it’s actually less important than how it sounds. Brad means a broad plain, and Glenn means a field between two mountains. Does it say anything about me? Not really. It’s fun to find out the origins of your name, and a few, like Stella, might conjure an image, but for the most part I wouldn’t worry too much about it. You don’t have to look through a baby book name for a name that means Faithful or Sneaky to fit the character you have in mind.

How the name sounds is important, so ensure you say the names out loud. I just finished writing the first draft of a novel called The Psychedelic Postman, and in it I had one character named Constance Geld, and another named William Neld. I hadn’t realized they were too similar until they were in the same scene, and then I knew I would have to go into each chapter and find/replace one of their names. I changed it to William Arlington, which I thought would stick in the mind better and having three syllables differentiated it from many of the other names in the book. Rhyming names are confusing, as are names that look or sound alike.

There’s also a temptation to use alliteration in naming characters. It feels like a throwback to comics, with Peter Parker and Bruce Banner. I keep away from this as well, just because it feels campy to me. That said, I certainly remember alliterative names much more clearly than non-alliterative names in general. I might consider using this method for a lesser character, but again, it’s just not my style for a main character.
Characters with the same last names should probably have different first letters of their first names to help identify them, even though in reality many families choose the same first letter for their children. My neighbours were Dennis, Daniel, Denise, and Jim. Pretty close!

It can be argued that we no longer live in a caste system, but there are still definite classes, and often names still can denote which class a person belongs to. For instance, Doyle is a working-class name, while Davenport is much more upper class. Doug is a lower class first name when compared to an upper class name like Rupert or Benedict. You could even use names to show class, as in calling a character Bill versus William. Inversing these, such as having a homeless man names Willoughby, sets up an interesting backstory that while you might not explore it fully in your story, adds a depth to the character that might not be there otherwise.

Full disclosure here, I do use baby name websites sometimes. I find myself scrolling through the names until one hits. Often I’ll figure out the ethnicity of a character and choose something suitable, as I don’t want to end up with a character from a country with a name from a completely different ethnicity without any reason. Other times I see a name that sticks in my head and I save it. I am planning my next piece, a short story, and already I have found a name for the mansion it is set in. I’ve used the phone book (back when phone books were a thing) but I mixed and matched names in my inexperience and ended up with names that culturally would likely never occur. I’ve never stolen a family name, but I have put my friend Gord into a story because it was basically about him anyway. (And his name sounded like God, and there was a link there I wanted to make.) I also go back and often find/replace names, so on occasion I write in people I know, often from my school years, so that their character is easily set in my head, and then replace their names after I’m done my first draft, and they are none the wiser!

So to wrap it up, don’t name your characters just whatever. Really think it through, find the perfect name, and make it memorable.

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