Written for The Art of Criticism Newsletter, Volume 8
|This article was written for volume eight of "Invalid Item" , and was my first offering as an AoC freelance writer. It was edited and laid-out by PatrickB in wonderful style.|
** Image ID #1960731 Unavailable ** ** Image ID #1960732 Unavailable **
** Image ID #1974362 Unavailable ** ** Image ID #1974364 Unavailable **
** Image ID #1970337 Unavailable ** by
In Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet, names are extremely important. By Juliet's reckoning, if Romeo were to give up his surname, their love would bloom -- just like the rose, which would smell as sweet no matter what it was called. Romeo is far more than his name, though by the end ofJuliet's musings, he's lost his Christian name as well. The prize for doing so? Juliet. Romeo's quick to agree. Love is all-powerful.
But as we've seen, names are just as powerful. Your parents didn't give you yours just to avoid calling you "It," though many of us might have preferred "It" as we grew up listening to butchered pronunciations, repeating the spelling at every iteration, and coping with the terrible nicknames our 'friends' came up with. I was fortunate to have been christened Teresa, which only brought about "Treesagreen," though I still encounter people who try to spell it with an "H." The only time I wanted a different name was when I was nine, and there were three girls named Teresa in my class. Three! I got off lightly. I had a friend named Trinnette which I thought was so cool when I was eleven, but I am pretty sure even now Trinnette has grown tired of explaining the spelling and pronunciation: "Trinity."
I would hazard a guess that those of us born prior to 1990 have what could be considered fairly standard names, nothing too outside the square (though my sister would disagree). And because they're standard, our parents didn't have to think too much about what the name meant. Nowadays, choosing a name is almost as difficult as rocket science, if you have conscientious parents. To avoid your child changing his or her name as soon as they're legally able to, you need to be careful of spelling, pronunciation, nicknames, words that the initials make, existing persons with that name, connotations of the name, what the name means, how it might affect the child's life, and so on. Picking a name is no longer just down to "that was our favourite," "it suited him," or "it's a family name."
When we name our fictional "babies," we have no less responsibility in applying careful thought. They won't be able to get their name changed, and they could still suffer the same harassment real people do. The thing is, they'll get it two-fold -- from other characters we create alongside them and from readers. Readers. They're likely to remember a name above most other factors in your story, so you should make your character-names worthy.
For me, a name is everything. I recently wrote twenty pages (double-side, A4) using "X" and "Y" for the two protagonists before I came up with Christian names that worked. Many more pages were written before the right surnames popped up. More often, I have a name and no story, but when I do find a story, it has to fit the name as does the type of character he or she is. The name is so important to me that I've been known to not read novels because I don't like the character's name. Raymond E. Feist's Magician comes to mind here, with "Pug." I don't know what it is, but I just can't get into a book that has a central character named "Pug." Incidentally, Feist is not this author's original surname.
Perhaps it is because I'm a child of the 1970's, but I'm quite old fashioned when it comes to names, especially when writing historical or modern fiction. I have a lot of "Andrews," "Stephens," "Matthews," and a fair sprinkling of "Gabriels." I don't have a lot of female characters, so they tend to be more unique. But each one of these names must match the man or woman behind the moniker. The same holds true when I make up more non-traditional names.
** Image ID #1974375 Unavailable ** ** Image ID #1974374 Unavailable **
Names Convey Meaning -- Even Governments Know That
The most basic knowledge we probably all have of a name is what it means. I have several baby-name books on my shelves; they not only provide great names, but give both origin and meaning. However, with the name being so important, we often need more than just origin and meaning. Is your character's name the top-rated name for the year of his or her birth when the story is set? Is there anyone famous (or infamous) with the same name? If so, are these the sort of people you want your character name associated with? Is the name conducive towards your character's chances of being a nice person (or a villain)? One aspect you may not have considered is whether or not the name you choose follows the law.
We writers might think we have a free reign when it comes to naming our characters, but we should note that there are actually rules surrounding name creation and registration. If your story is set in a real time and place, then you really should go onto that country's official website and make sure your name is acceptable. In New Zealand, for instance, you can't use the following as names:
And unless you've got a really good explanation, you can't use words that would normally be titles:
Words that might cause offense are also outlawed:
You know, I wouldn't mind "Sergeant" as a name but "Anal" or "III?" All three of these names were applied for and rejected by the New Zealand government in the last ten years. What were the parents thinking? Or, more aptly, what were they on? Be good when you're naming your characters; you don't want to turn a reader away because of an offensive or ridiculous name.
Some Interesting Statistics Concerning Names
The website Babynames.com obviously knows that writers are major visitors to their site, because they have a section that provides a set of eight tips on choosing a character's name. Two of these tips really caught my eye.
The first is for making the name age-appropriate. That is, make sure it was an appropriate name to give to a baby at the time of your character's birth in your real-time plot. I tried this out with one of mine -- "Owen." Since I moved the story forward in time, he was born in 1994 in the United States. According to the U.S. Social Security Online , "Owen" ranked 454th in popularity in 1994, below "Tanner" (96th), "Angel" (104th) and "Skyler" (214th). Out of curiosity, I checked the New Zealand name records, and "Owen" hasn't appeared in the top-100 in any year between 1999 and 2012. I seem to have failed the first tip, but this name came to me with the germ of a story idea, so I won't be changing it. I did note that in 2012, "Owen" ranked 38th on the U.S. list. Incidentally, "Jack" has been the top name in New Zealand for six of the last ten years, but according to Tip #6, it's an over-used name and best avoided. I checked out Teresa on the U.S. site -- 61st in 1975, but decreasing in popularity ever since (608th in 2012). So best not use "Teresa" as a character name either!
Tip #7 was also interesting, and it concerns the use of loaded names. These are the names that could possibly hurt your character's image. A loaded name is one that is famous or infamous by dint of a real person or a character who is so memorable everyone knows him or her. "Adolph" and "Oprah" are two of the former, "Rhett" and "Scarlett" are two of the latter. It doesn't mean we can't use such names at all,] but bear in mind what it'll mean to your character, even if that character is not living in a real time/place. As the tip suggests, you should make the name part of your plot -- how has the character reacted to having such a name? How was it given in the first place? "Loaded" doesn't just mean existing names/characters. Being named after animals, cars, or ships bestows connotation too. I recently watched a news story about a woman whose Christian name was "Orpheus" -- not after the Greek mythological poet, but after a ship that wrecked in 1860. (The ship was named after the poet.) Besides being quite an uncommon name for a woman, the explanation was intriguing. I have since used the name for one of my characters -- though he was named after the poet, and prefers to go by his middle name, "Mason."
Babynames.com also sorts names into topics, such as boys names for girls, Old English boys names, and Shakespeare-inspired names. While not exactly directed at writers, this is a treasure trove which might help you pick more appropriately according to the type of story you're writing.
** Image ID #1974377 Unavailable ** ** Image ID #1974378 Unavailable **
Manipulation photography by Fiddle Oak. See more of this 14 year-old's stunning work through this article.
Characters Are Remembered by Their Names First
Despite our diligent research, what we want above all is a name that is memorable, because that's what the reader is going to use to cement the character's image in his or her mind, over and above the character's physical characteristics and possibly over and above their actions. Interestingly, I perused Characterization 101: How to Create Memorable Characters and it gave great tips on how to write characters worth remembering, but said nothing at all about giving the character a memorable name. And yet, the second paragraph went like this:
"You will always remember Elizabeth Bennett, Katniss, Holden, Jean Valjean, and Harry The Boy Who Lived. These characters will stick in your brain for years, maybe longer even than some of your friends. However, other characters you forgot as soon as you closed the book. What was the character's name of that book you had to read in ninth grade? You know, the really boring one?"
The point of this excerpt is that if you've got a boring character, no one will remember him or her. But how do they remember characters in this paragraph? By name! I've read Les Miserables and Catcher in the Rye, but I've not read the others. Yet I know those characters by their name, which are memorable and -- in the case of "Katniss" -- unique. If her name was "Mary," I probably wouldn't know who she was. And though I've not read Feist's Magician, I know that character's name because I dislike it. It's memorable! To further cement the importance of a memorable name, check out Greg Olear's 2013 List of what he considers to be the fifty greatest character names. Wouldn't you want your character on such a list? I would.
If I had to come up with a list of memorable names, I'm not sure I could find fifty, but I'd certainly include:
Lucien, Duke of Camareigh (yes, he belongs to a historic romance: Midnight Madness by Laurie McBain)
Ishmael (only known from that opening sentence of Herman Melville's Moby Dick)
Gabriel Oak (Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, another one never read)
Federico (from the Bobcat Western San Rio Sunrise by Emerson Dodge)
Pussy Galore (Ian Fleming's Goldfinger, another never read nor seen, but who forgets a name like that?)
Pug (from Feist's Magician, even though I don't like it)
These names stick out in my memory the same way I want my character's names to stick out.
Choosing a name doesn't have to be rocket science, but you should still take some care when coming up with a moniker. When I'm naming my characters, I keep in mind two points:
1. The name must suit the character, and that's right down to the meaning of the name. For example, don't give your hero a name that might mean "weakling" unless it's part of your plot that he's trying to rise above his name and prove his parents wrong.
2. When making up a name or modifying the spelling of a common name, make sure the name is still easy to read and pronounce. The last thing you want is something that a reader mis-reads from the outset or skims over because they can't pronounce it.
When you're fleshing out your hero or heroine, don't forget to spend a decent amount of time in coming up with the right name. Like a name or dislike a name -- it doesn't matter as long as the name is memorable. A remembered name is a remembered character.
If in doubt, read 47 Ronin by John Allyn, a fictional telling of a true story. At the very end, Oishi is about to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide. He doesn't regret his actions or that he has to die because he will be remembered:
"In the end this was all that mattered, for a man will only be as long as his life but his name will be for all time."
William Shakespeare Complete Works, The Promotional Reprint Company, 1991, page 772.
Allyn, John. 47 Ronin Tuttle Publishing, 2012.
New Zealand Updates List of Banned Baby Names Time Newsfeed, May 2013.