Monday, July 6, 2015

What's In a Name?

It's amazing the kinds of things an author has to think about when writing a novel. First and foremost, maybe even before plot or setting is considered, there are the characters to consider. Whether a story is driven by plot or by character, regardless of whether characters are major or secondary, practically the first thing one needs to consider is the characters' names.

Naming one's characters is akin to naming one's children. The name should not only reflect what attributes and character one hopes one's children will have, but also be distinctive. When it comes to naming a character, one certainly hopes that their character will not be forgotten.

The name goes a long way toward achieving that goal. After all, I doubt anyone ever said, "Yeah, the main character in 'Gone With the Wind', what was her name?" Scarlet O'Hara is probably one of the most iconic character names in the history of literature. How much thought did the author put into choosing a name for her character? Imagine Scarlet's first name being Pansy. It almost was (really!) Maybe actress Vivien Leigh had a lot to do with it, but picture the woman in red who crashed Ashley Wilkes' birthday party and try to think of her as Pansy O'Hara. Yeah, I can't, either!

A character's name has to fit. Sometimes it's easy to find a good fit for a character's name. Other times it's not. A writer has to be honest when naming their characters as well. It's tempting to name the villain of the story after someone who stole your boyfriend/girlfriend in high school or give the hero/heroine an impossibly romantic or fabulous name. It reminds me of an old Bloom County comic strip where Opus is about to meet his fiancee's ex-boyfriend who is named Bart Savagewood. Sure enough, Bart looks like hero out of some romance novel or swashbuckling adventure story. It works in a comic strip or a sitcom or a comedy movie, but in a work of fiction, it comes off as forced or a parody and it's hard to take the story seriously. Also, projecting another person's identity on a fictional character can backfire; are they the character's feelings and motivations that are being portrayed or are they the author's?

Of course, naming a character, like naming a child or even a pet is never foolproof. Someone, somewhere, will make a negative connection with a name you've chosen for your hero or heroine, or resent the fact that the villain has the same name as their sainted mother. And one has to be careful not to make the character's name too similar to a real person's name. If you're setting your story in, say, El Paso, Texas, you might want to check the phone directory to make sure there really isn't someone with the name you've chosen living there who may sue for defamation if your serial killer has the same name (unless you choose a name so common it fills three columns in the directory!)

I've said before that writing a book is similar to giving birth to a child. Picking out the right name or names for a child is part of the fun of becoming a parent. Naming the characters in the book is part of the fun of the writing process.


  1. I collect names. Graduation programs are a great source--the trick is to pick a first name that fits the character, then from somewhere else the last. First names are the most important.

  2. That's a great idea, Marilyn! I haven't been to graduation ceremony in years (it's the busiest day of the year for a cake decorator!) but I should collect some from friends... of course, one of the last graduations I attended was in El Paso and there were no fewer than 15 girls name Maria Gonzalez in the class!

    I also like to switch names around and maybe add to them... John Tyler, for example, becomes Tyler Johnson. There are so many possibilities! And I agree that first names are the most important... that's how the character will mostly be identified throughout the story!