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What’s in a Name?

“I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.” –Anne of Green Gables.

I hate to upset the Bard, but I’m going to have to agree with Anne on this one.

Names are important.

Especially the ones we pick for our fictional characters. The name we chose for that beloved hero or heroine will instantly paint a picture in your reader’s mind. Resist the urge to slap a name you love into your manuscript. Instead take a couple items into account before making your selection.

Names can add layers to your writing.

Choose your character’s name for the meaning.

Take best-selling author Erle Stanley Gardner’s hero Perry Mason for example (which also became a radio show, movie, and television show). Perry was a defense attorney who always rescued his innocent client in the court room in the nick of time.

Why was the name so perfect? Because in the courtroom Perry would use his cross-questioning like a fencing match – parrying his opponent. Then, like a master mason, he would lay pieces of evidence on top of speculation, building a defense for his client and a case against the true evildoer. Put it all together, huh, Perry Mason.

How about Huckleberry Finn? That one is easy. Huckleberries grow near the riverbanks, and what creatures have fins? Mark Twain wanted us to know that this character name was saying, “Come down to the river with me for an adventure.”

The popular show LOST was known for picking trait-infused names for its cast:

  • 1)John Locke – became the key to the island’s secrets
  • 2) Jack Shepard – took it upon himself to care for and led the other survivors
  • 3) Kate Austen – couldn’t make up her mind about the man she wanted
  • 4) Mr. Eko (pronounced: echo) – lived a life that should have been his brother’s
  • 5) Jacob – the ‘god’ character, his name translates to deceiver
  • 6) Sawyer – didn’t want to accept responsibility (Tom Sawyer anyone?)

In my manuscript, Left to Chance, the hero’s name is Jericho Freed. Jericho harkens back to the historical account of the city of Jericho that crumbled from the inside out. Can you guess my hero’s story? And my heroine, Ali Silver, feels second or third rate (not like platinum of gold), but when she finally sees her future with Jericho, well, in marrying him, she’s freed from her bitterness and anger of the past.

Names can add flavor.

Keep in mind the location of your manuscript and the sort of names that will clue the reader in without having to tell them where the story takes place.

Pop Quiz – Based on the names listed, what is the setting?

1) Bobby-Sue, Cody, Bo, Jesse, Peaches, and Willodean.

Clearly the South.

Name choosing is the time when stereotyping is not just okay, but is imperative to painting your character correctly in your reader’s mind. Play off of the ideas that already exist in your reader’s mind. This way, you’re not wasting valuable page time trying to persuade your reader that your hero really is a tough ex-con, if you give him the name Buck, they’ll already assume those things.

A biker bad-boy shouldn’t be named Henry. It wouldn’t fit and would jar the reader. Can you suggest a better fitting name?

Also, don’t forget to think about your time-period. An 1800’s English earl probably shouldn’t be named Zane.

Some names should be avoided.

Right now it would be impudent to name a character Edward or Isabella, with the popularity of Twilight, even people who haven’t read Stephenie Meyer’s books are prone to fly to thoughts of vampires right away.

Some names have become too famous to use. Period.

If you name your hero Obama, well, you’re going to spend your entire book fighting the reader’s already preconceived ideas about the President. Even if your hero has nothing in common with him.

And for that matter, if you’re going to write a hero with the last name Darcy, that book better have ties to Pride and Prejudice or else the readers will be disappointed.

 

Names should be readable.

Gwyneth Paltrow can get away with naming her child Apple, you cannot.

You may fall in love with spelling Holly — Holli, but your readers won’t and your editor is prone to change it to something that reads more common. The granny in your novel could be the perfect Esanmegtnk in your mind, but if a reader can’t figure out how to pronounce it they won’t end up connecting with the character.

Helpful name resources:

Baby name websites are excellent places to search for names because they explain the meaning and often show when the name was most popular.

Another great resource is the Social Security listing of most popular names by year. This is excellent if you are writing a historical set in America. At the Social Security website you can search by decade and it will even narrow down most popular names in a given year by state.

Write on! -Jess

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About Jess Keller

I'm an author, speaker and chocolate eater who's chasing hard after my dreams.

6 responses »

  1. This is thought provoking. I haven’t put a lot of thought into the meaning of my characters names. I just kind of make a stab at it. Maybe I should repent and give it some thought! 🙂 You are right. A name does make the character, just like a skunk cabbage.

    Reply
    • Thanks Kelli! I’m a big fan of researching my character before I start writing the story, so the name is the first step. I like a name to fit exactly what their personality and what they will go through. It doesn’t always mean in “means” something profound (like in my historical the names are just time-appropriate and that’s all the meaning is) but I always go and at least look up what the names.

      The Bible is a GREAT example of names having meaning. Each and every one of them was given a name that baiscally said who they were. And if it didn’t fit, God changed it (Simon to Peter).

      Reply
  2. This is a great article. Thanks! 🙂

    Reply
  3. I appreciate this info. I keep a link to sites such as this on my website and I learned three new ones here. BTW, the last link shown should be http://www.meaning-of-names.com/. That is, no “the” in the URL.

    When I was writing my first bookmobile story, I didn’t have a name for the male protagonist, who was the bookmobile driver so I used BD as a placeholder. It wasn’t until much later that I changed that to Brian Donelson.

    I keep a database of names so that I don’t use similar sounding ones. When I’m reading a novel, it confuses me when there are two people with similar names.

    Good insight into fictional names.

    Reply

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