Friday, August 10, 2012

What's in a Name?

Are the names you give to your characters important? If you're like me, you tend to err on the side of neutrality. In real life people don't get given particularly 'meaningful' names, at least not in Western cultures. Even if you wanted to give your newborn a name which you thought would neatly sum up their character, there's no guarantee such a name will still be 'relevant' when the baby comes of age.

Well, not in most cases anyway:



All joking aside, having names that reflect your character(s) are worthwhile if you can do it well. Not anything too Dickensian - what kind of name is 'Pumblechook anyway?' - perhaps, but meaningful names can serve the writer well.

David Lodge admits that he wanted too get the names right for his splendid novel Nice Work (in short, it's a modern spin on Elizabeth Gaskell's North & South). One of his main characters, Robyn Penrose, is a feminist lecturer in English literature. In an interview, he reveals that he gave her the surname 'Penrose' because 'pen' indicates her love of literature, whilst 'rose' suggests her beauty.

The other principal character, Vic Wilcox, is a no nonsense manager at an engineering firm, with a, shall we say, traditionally masculine approach to gender politics. Does that surname give you a clue?

There's a reason for the first names as well: Robyn is required to spend some time in Vic's workplace on a kind of 'work exchange' program, and Vic assumes that it's going to be a Robin Penrose he will be entertaining. The subsequent deflation of Vic's prejudices is a great plot device that Lodge exploits to the full.

There are other, subtler examples as well. For instance YA author Sally Nicholls (according to Wikipedia, she and I were born on exactly the same day, incidentally...) has related how she spent some time changing the name of her MC in Ways To Live Forever because his original name was too 'girly'. This suggests that even seemingly 'neutral' names can be important.

What do you think?


9 comments:

  1. I am *obsessed* with names. I can't even start writing a story until I have the main character's name! It dictates what sort of person they are and what they look like – and if it changes, so do they.

    Coming up with those names isn't something I do consciously, though. They always pop into my head from nowhere (along with the character themselves!), as if the characters have decided to walk into my brain and introduce themselves.

    OK, I sound totally mad now… good thing I have the excuse of being a writer! :o)

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    1. All writers are mad Emma ;)

      I see what you mean about how a name can create an impression in your head of what someone looks like. Somehow, a big burly bloke wouldn't be called Timothy now would he...

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  2. Poor Rodney being frightened of Damien :-) Names are important to me and my characters often change name during the writing process. Actually one character was called Sam Riverdale until I realised he had the same initials as I do, so he changed (didn't want people thinking I was writing about myself). I also had a character called Mule Palmer, because... well, he was a bit stubborn.

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    1. Here's a spoiler for you. The principal antagonist in my WIP is called Joe. Why? Because I can, bwahahaha!

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    2. Oh ho! Now, when I read it I'll know I'm reading about you :-)

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  3. I have several ways of choosing names. Sometimes I sit down and pick them out based on meaning. I have a character named Naomi in a Beauty and the Beast story, because in Hebrew the name means 'pleasantness' and in Japanese, 'beauty above all'.

    Other times I pick them based on feel. For example, one of my protagonists is named Charles Elliot, because the name felt traditional and high-brow to me. My last method is when I overhear someone's name in public and like it and decide I'll give it to a minor character who needs a name.

    I enjoy all three processes - naming characters is one of the more fun parts of writing, in my opinion! However, I do agree that you have to be careful not to be too heavy-handed with the name meanings. Dickens 'McChoakumchild' from Hard Times is perfectly ridiculous, for example. Anyway, thanks for an interesting post!

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    1. You're welcome and thanks for sharing your own methods for choosing names for your characters. I'm impressed in particular with the way you came up with Naomi!

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  4. I'm late to the party, and sad that I didn't find this site earlier.

    I think names have to have the right connotations, or at least help the writer to trigger a response in the reader. If I'm stuck, I resort to arcane meanings that link to the plot in a way that few would see, and then only as an authorial pun. In a book to be published next year (Saxon's Bane), there is a feisty female character who runs a stables. I named her Eadlin Stodman after the Anglo Saxon for 'little princess' and 'keeper of horses'.

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  5. Thanks Geoffrey, and better late than never! :-)

    I can see what you're saying, for sure, and if I was as well read as you I'd certainly love to make authorial puns! But to me, a neutral name is better than a badly executed and contrived 'meaningful' one.

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