Craft & Culture Writing tips: from writers for writers

Character Names and the Gravitational Influence of Everything

Sophie McDonald considers the giant planetary forces that influence the choosing of fictional character's names.
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If there’s one certainty about characterisation, it’s that names don’t exist in isolation. It’s tempting to think: do they really matter all that much? After all, our parents chose our name simply because they liked it —isn’t it enough to do the same with our characters? While this is true to an extent, it’s also important to remember that fiction is not ‘real life’ as we know it, but an imagined version that we use to create a particular effect. Character names form an essential part of this and therefore should be chosen with care to avoid being hit by such dangerous space debris as:

— A confused reader who doesn’t understand who’s who or mixing up similar sounding characters.

— A frustrated reader that has to stop every time they reach a character’s name because it’s difficult to read.

— A disappointed reader who doesn’t feel we’ve done a great job of creating anyone particularly iconic.

It’s interesting to note that the only difference between the naming of a person in the real world and the naming of a fictional character is that with a baby, we don’t know their personality yet. Aside from this; as in physics, there are laws which have governed the names given to us, such as: our cultural background, location and era. It’s exactly the same for fictional characters, with one exception: there are more of them. Let’s take a look now through our telescope to witness these giant planetary forces that influence the choosing of our character’s names.

Planet Genre

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Planet Genre is a sweet, rather shy heavenly body; but she’s a stickler for the rules (and setting the right tone). Her influence on the choice of names means that they must make sense within their own context; and if we really want to annoy her, let’s go right ahead and call the serial killer in our new crime story: ‘Runescape Moonstone’. She would do an extra orbit however if Runescape Moonstone was the protagonist of our fantasy story. Fantasy is a genre in which there’s more liberty to create distinct and wacky names, not only because of characters potentially coming from a different world; but also the often endless supply of them the reader has to remember. This is true for all other genres in their own way, whether it’s action, drama or comedy.

Planet History

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Planet History is a pretty big guy and no name can exist without his influence. He provides the context for character’s names; reveals their cultural background, sometimes even their religion and class. Of James Bond, Ian Fleming said: “It struck me that this brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon name was just what I needed”. (Caplen, Robert (2010). Shaken & Stirred: The Feminism of James Bond. Bloomington, Indiana: Xlibris.) Bond needed such a name to contrast with the names of ‘foreign’ climes and in possessing such a typically English name, would appear ‘neutral’: “Exotic things would happen to and around him, but he would be a neutral figure, an anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a government department”. (Chancellor, Henry (2005). James Bond: The Man and His World. London: John Murray)

Planet Personality

Planet Personality - photo taken from Unsplash and edited by Nothing in the Rulebook

Planet Personality is the biggest planet in this small solar system and boy does he like to party. His favourite quote is: “His name was Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it” from C. S. Lewis’: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952); and for good reason. Naming our characters is an opportunity to add something of their personality to the name. Once again, Planet Genre has a little part to play in terms of how subtle or obvious we are and there are multiple ways to execute it, a few of which I’ve listed here:

First name

Let’s take Scarlett O’Hara from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936). Mitchell originally called her protagonist ‘Pansy’ before changing it to ‘Scarlett’ dangerously close to the book going to print. Would Scarlett have been such an iconic character had Mitchell not made this decision? Arguably not; but what is certainly clear is that her name would have been a source of irony rather than a linguistic representation of one of the most fiery women in literature. In this we can see how characters ‘deserve’ certain names over others.

Surname

Holly Golightly from Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) is an example in reverse of the previous point. ‘Golightly’ is a portmanteau of ‘go’ and ‘lightly’ which suggests light-heartedness and restlessness; personality traits which typify this New York Society girl.

Secret or not so secret root meanings

The real name of Vladimir Nabokov’s character: ‘Lolita’ from Lolita (1955) is actually ‘Dolores’; with the root ‘dolor’ coming from the Latin for ‘pain’ or ‘grief’. This is perhaps reflective of the way in which Lolita is mistreated and the circumstances she finds herself in over the course of the novel. Another example would be Lord Voldemort from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (1997-2007). Not only does his name suggest power, it also has the ability to instil fear; with the suffix ‘mort’ evoking the word ‘death’. ‘Captain Fluffybunny’ would certainly not reflect Voldemort’s personality quite as effectively and would also have major complications for: ‘He who must not be named’.

No name or one name

Speaking of characters who must not be named; withholding a character’s name is a powerful tool that many authors have used, often to convey a sense of unimportance or powerlessness; such as Mrs de Winter in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938). We may also decide to choose only a single name for a character, either a first name or surname, such as Santiago from Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1951). This could have many different interpretations, but in this case I feel it emphasises Santiago’s old age and world weariness, almost as if revealing his surname doesn’t matter now that he’s at this particular stage of his life.

Planet Location

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Planet Location is Planet History’s best friend and they have much in common; particularly when it comes to revealing the ancestry of individuals through their names. Names vary not only between countries but regionally within those countries too; and can be a great source of help when wanting to name a character from a particular area.

To give an example, I’m a native of Yorkshire, England; an area that was once colonised by the Vikings. Most of the local villages and many districts in my town have names that derive partially or completely from Old Norse. This often reflects in surnames too and is a unique characteristic of the area; something which I could capitalise upon if I wanted to write a character from my region. In terms of generating ideas, we can research local history, look in the phone book or even talk to local people (or family) about any ancestors they remember. Charlaine Harris, the author of The Southern Vampire Mysteries (2001-2013), based the first name of her protagonist ‘Sookie Stackhouse’ on her grandmother’s best friend. She said: “It was a fine old Southern nickname, I thought it would do well for my heroine. And ‘Stackhouse’ just flowed right after it”. (Harris, Charlaine (2011). The Sookie Stackhouse Companion. Gollancz).

Planet Time

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Planet Time is the smallest planet of them all and a bit of a fashion victim. She influences names based on what she deems to be in or out at any particular time; and suggests that: ‘Æthelswith’ is a great choice if you’re wanting to rock the look of a Dark Age Princess, but don’t be caught dead using it for a modern-day girl, of which she prefers names like: ‘Ava’, ‘Layla’ or ‘Ella’. Turning away from the skies, there’s one more piece of useful information that comes up time and time again when experts offer advice on naming characters. If we don’t feel entirely comfortable with the name we’ve chosen for our character before sending work away; it’s so important to stop and spend some time thinking of something else. After all: “Names have power”— Rick Riordan.

About the author of this post

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Sophie McDonald is a blogger and creator of janedoewrites.com; a website dedicated to helping others on the writing path. Through her own experience she imparts the things she discovers along the way, focusing on: craft, mascara-smudging failures, the writing process and discussing cult films more than she should. She tweets as @jane_doewrites 

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