5/18/11

What's in a name? The quandaries of naming fictional characters

*via jeanjean vintage on Etsy

Names are an interesting thing.  When a woman is pregnant, many people ask what she's going to name the baby.  Sometimes she is brave enough to answer and often that bravery is met with odd facial expressions or unwanted commentary.  It is no easy thing, picking a name.  If you try to pick a name that pleases everyone, well, heaven bless you, because it ain't gonna happen.

I may or may not ever have children, but writing a novel gives me ample opportunity to name a whole host of people.  Goodie for me. But like poor pregnant ladies everywhere, I too endure scrutiny on names.

My very first first beta reader (how I love her) grew attached to the names of certain characters in the early draft.  When I read the meaning of one of the character's names, however, I gasped and decided to change it.  I then spent way too much time dilly-dallying over names, changing them back and forth, much to the chagrin of my friend.  None of the names felt "quite right" to her and she was still attached to the first names, leaving me unsure myself.  To tell you the truth, I still might change those character's names. Recently I also had another beta reader comment on a few character names, too.  Which only made me smile a bit, because people's reactions to names are so funny and unique!

The opinion I've reached is this:

  • When choosing a name for a real life baby or a fictional one, you cannot hope to please all people, so you should not aim to please all people.
  • You might as well choose the name you like, one that feels right to you (unless there is some obvious reason not to).
  • Most people will grow used to the name.  As they stare at that fat-cheeked baby or sit engrossed in a character, they will forget that they ever questioned the name.
  • Unless you want to go crazy, don't ask for advice on names, follow your intuition and then just pronounce it so.

So... how to pick a name for fictional characters?

I blush as I write this, because I can't explain how I picked most of my names. A few were studied choices, but most came to me bubbling out of my sub-conscious.  It feels a bit electric and permanent, as if this IS the character's name.  Not that I would never change it, but it would feel like calling a fish a dog or calling yellow blue.  It embarrasses me because this is the sort of artsy silliness that many writers exhibit that sometimes gets them into trouble.  But so be it.  Writers and artists are weird.  That's part of the DNA.

I think there are some practical considerations though:

When it comes to the studied choices, I think about who the character is, what I want to convey, maybe who their parent was, what influences they brought to the table.

I don't want a character's name to be totally "out of character" with the story or seriously distracting.  So if for example, I was writing some fantastic silly children's story, Totty Trotbottom, might make some sort of sense, but it might be a distraction in a work of serious literary fiction.  Unless perhaps it was something like The Help, set in the south, where all the characters seem to have some nonsensical nickname.

In an ideal world I want the character's name to somehow evoke the character, or in a less than ideal world, at least not clash with your idea of the character.  Lester Snaggletooth, for example, might be a poor name for someone who is supposed to be dazzingly handsome. John Smith might be a poor name for a character who is dazzingly unique (unless of course you want to somehow contrast his inner world with his outer or some such artistic complication).

And of course, all sorts of challenging naming issues arise with have a story set in the past, in the future, on an imaginary planet, or in a magical kingdom. But those are too complex for me to address at this point!

So, I'm curious, how important is a character's name for you? Have there every been any character's names who influenced you or stuck with you in a huge way?  (Like you named your kid or your parakeet after the character?)


Apparently, quite a few people are inspired by literary names. Check out this fun book called A is for Atticus: Baby Names from Great Books!

9 comments:

  1. Well, my aunt is Mildred Josephine and just gave me her pocketwatch necklace!
    I used to get hooked on names from books by Kathleen Woodiwiss. Alaina was one :) I had all boys!

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  2. I named my daughter after L.M. Montgomery's Emily. And - surprise, surprise - not one person made a face or offered any kind of argument when I told them the baby's name. I guess it's a classic for a reason, but I chose it because of a character in a book that I've loved for decades.

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  3. Everyone thinks "Gideon" was chosen as a Biblical name, but I was actually thinking about a character in a Larry McMurtry book (Leaving Cheyenne). I didn't necessarily name my son after that character, but when I came across Gideon in the baby name book, I thought of Larry McMurtry, not the Bible.

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  4. I am completely in love with the name Cosette from Les Miserables. If i have a girl someday I hope to name her that... if my husband agrees with me. :)

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  5. Oh goodness, such fun comments! I love it. And they're all great names. The Emily trilogy by L.M. Montgomery is one of my favorites, and like Emily in the book, I'm sometimes tempted to take a match to one of my novels. Haha! I have a very good friend named Emily, and my father once took a message from her and wrote down "Emma Lee called". It took me forever to figure out who he meant. But ever since I've wanted used that name.

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  6. Since were talking names . . . my note is just something fun for you, because I love my husband's Grandma's names . . . {although all of my children have Biblical names; Zachariah, Elizabeth and Samuel, so technically they qualify in this instance} . . . but back to Grandma's . . . Lucile Amelia Mathilda . . . And Lucile is not misspelled! Apparently it is an alternate spelling, as I posess a book of her era with that title. :) Besides, Grandma always said, "with two l's, it spells Lu-silly".

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  7. Thanks for sharing Debbi! I love old fashioned names that aren't so common anymore. They have a lovely ring to them. I especially love ones involving flowers like Violet, Daisy, Rose, Lily, Jasmine, etc.

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  8. Oooh! Then I have to add this, you'll love it! My Elizabeth named her little girl, Fiona Lillian Rose . . . Her love name is Fifi-Lily-Rose! {My Grandma was Cassie Lillian . . . do you remember when I lost her last year? She lived long enough to know the baby was named for her.} :) Oh my gosh! I'm running late! Enough playing! Have a wonderful day, Valerie!
    ~Debbi
    ~Debbi

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