A Character By Any Other Name Wouldn’t Smell As Sweet

Posted: November 14, 2012 in Discussions, On Writing
Tags: , , , , ,

I’d like to look at the importance of character names today.

Some may think that a name’s a name, right? Or “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. No. Wrong, wrong, wrong (in literature).

Your characters names should in some way, shape, or form, reflect notable characteristics they have. The best way to have a plethora of names at your fingertips would be to buy a name dictionary or a baby name book. Mine’s called The Name Dictionary by Alfred J. Kolatch, and consists of both modern english (modern as of 1967, when it was written) and hebrew names. Besides just lists of names, this book also provides a background or definition of the name. (Or, if you don’t feel like spending the cash on another book, use baby naming websites, they are extremely useful and often will provide background on the name as well.) This is not exactly necessary for naming characters, the definition doesn’t have to match the character so much as the sound or the effect the name has on the mind should correlate.

Take for example, Stark, the villain from Stephen King’s The Dark Half. Stark has a rough, tough, brusque feel to it, instantly making us think: menace. I’d provide the definition in my name dictionary, but there is no Stark in there.

Say your character is older, a great place to start looking for these types of names would be with grandparents and older relatives. Throughout history names have come and gone in the sense of popularity. When I was growing up, there were more Jessicas, Heathers, and Lauras than you could imagine, and the same went for the masculine Tylers, Stevens, and Jesses. Though back when my Mom was younger, Stephanie was a popular names. Now days, it seems just about anything goes for a name (though it seems to me that you’d be hard pressed to find a Tyler or Heather younger than twelve). I wouldn’t be surprised if some “super star” named their kid “Spoon”, hell, you never know. The abstract and obscure names are hot right now, and soon enough it’ll be a thing of the 2010’s and the next popular names will crop up. You don’t need to concern yourself with what’s popular right now, unless you’ve put an infant into your story. Think of the age of your main character, then do a little research and see what was in style then. Back in the 1920’s, names like Ethel and Hazel and Blanche, were sensual or sexy names, for a young woman. Now days, (to me at least) names like that bring up images of grandparents and the elderly.

The research holds its importance in regards to period novels as well. You wouldn’t very well drop a Harold into a prehistoric novel, give him a club and expect your readers to believe it. It’d be best to choose a simple name which people would associate with the grunting sounds cave men supposedly made, like Grun, or Agon, or anything similar and simple, think no more than four letters, preferably two vowels.

Say your character is the epitome of innocence, a great name for a girl would be Hope, Charity, or Heaven. If you’re looking for a more sensual female name, Amber, Candace, or (ironically) Chastity.

Ironic names are useful as well. For example, I heard of a young woman (close to my age) named Chastity, who was a slut. I found it hilarious that her parents would unknowingly give her such a wholesome and sweet name, when she turned out quite the opposite. But be careful when using ironic names, you don’t want to confuse your readers with deep meanings to names they don’t understand. Chose something that has a definition of its own as a word, rather than a name with religious meaning or a derivative widely unknown. Try Justice for a woman on the run, or Grace for a clutz.

Another plethora of name ideas would be the news paper, and the real world around you. Say you’ve got a friend whose name you love, rather than offending her and using both her first and last, combine her first name with a different last name, or put your own twist on the spelling of it so it reads a little differently. But, please, for your sake, refrain from using names (both first and last) that you know to belong to a real person. Failing to do so could easily result in a law suit or at least hurt feelings.

Names are an important aspect of how your readers feel about the character. Think of naming your characters like setting the tone and mood for your story. There are certain names that give the reader an instant sense of who the character is. Carefully consider your character’s personality type before naming them. And of course you can always break the rules (sometimes I think that’s the only reason we have rules in the first place: so it’d be so much fun to break them!), and make exceptions, or put your own twist on things.

I this helps someone.

Comment, if you like. What do you think about naming characters? What are some names you’ve used? What are some names you like? What are some names you avoid, and why? The best part of my day is reading the comments you all leave. =]

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Comments
  1. The Hook says:

    Names are tough, no question. Originality is hard to come by these days…

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