What’s In A Name?

June 25th, 2009 • Kate

purple-roseIn Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare wrote

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

And what’s the reason for my quoting the Bard today? Well, as I wrote yesterday on Twitter, some authors seem to be trying so very very hard with their characters’ names, to the point where their every character’s entire personality is summed up in their name. Need some examples? Try a vampire named Nightshade, a werewolf named Lupin (yes, even J.K. Rowling has her hack moments), a fallen angel named Lucian, etc. etc. Basically, think about the meaning behind a name. Are you substituting character development for a pithy name? In other words, are you telling instead of showing? Or worse, are you choosing a name just for a literary pun?

One of the best responses to my Twitter post came from @abbymcdonald, who wrote: “Some writers forget that characters actually had to be named – by their conservative/ordinary/mainstream parents!” Which is another good point. Your brooding teen protagonist didn’t spring into being as a “Destiny”, your goth as “Velvet,” or your British nerd as “Nigel.” Well, ok, they did, in your head, but on the page they existed before they appear in the book. You imagined them — can you image their parents deciding 16 years ago that naming their daughter after a kind of fabric was a good idea? Maybe they did, but that should be a character choice, not an excuse to go with the easy choice.

What examples can you share of names that say a little too much about their characters? What about characters whose names did the opposite — set you up for an idea that ended up being far from the truth? Which did you prefer?

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23 Responses to “What’s In A Name?”

  1. Rexroth Says:

    When this topic comes up, I always think of this comic from Penny Arcade:


    "In the Second Age of the Third Age, a grim, shadowy figure walks into a bar."

    "It is Grimm Shado."

  2. Brittany Landgrebe Says:

    Wow. So true. I'm always worrying about that when I create new characters – is it too much a cliche, or something the parents came up with on their own?

    The funny thing? I never even registered that as the reason it took me so long to decide on a name.

  3. Jamie Harrington Says:

    This is a weird topic for me, because my characters are super heroes. Their every day names need to be all normal like, but their super names have to be a little telling of their abilities. Binary talks to computers and Zoom is super fast, but really, they're just John and Zach. πŸ™‚

  4. Tim White Says:

    I always thought that "Skeeve" from the Myth Adventures was funny that way. (and Aahz = WizardofOz, of course), but that series was sort of founded on wordplay.

    Darken Rahl from the Sword of Truth series also comes to mind. πŸ™‚

    And, of course Charity and Michael from the Dresden Files…

    I don't know – sometimes it's eye-rolling, and sometimes it helps you to remember who is who when there is a lot of characters. πŸ™‚

  5. Rexroth Says:

    Supers are a bit of a special case, and I think you went the right way with very normal names behind the masks. Daphne and I met playing a supers game, and I winced more than once over a character whose 'normal' name was something like Raven Heathernight, or Victor Powers.

    There's a chart, which I can't locate now, that illustrates the inverse proportion of names like "Raven" and "Storm" in novels, compared to far more likely names like Susan and Mary (which almost never appear).

  6. Edi Says:

    All very true; I couldn't agree more.

    On the other hand, I must say I've seen a few characters whose names were "normal" to the point of feeling like the author went out of her way to make them so. Like using, say, Bill Johnson rather than, say, Chad MacArthur. After all, most surnames are at least marginally interesting (at least to me, but then I'm an admitted nerd) and most parents try to choose interesting names for their kids, right?

    I think the real goal is a tricky midpoint between the two extremes.

  7. Edi Says:

    P.S. I hasten to add that there's nothing wrong with the name Bill or the name Johnson, or even the name Bill Johnson! I'm only commenting on their relative commonness with reference to other names. And I also meant that the situations where it tends to stand out as a character name are when the author has done it with several characters in the story, not if just one character has a fairly common name.

    I certainly mean no offense to any writers who have used this type of name! πŸ™‚

  8. Adri Says:

    This reminds me of a certain author with characters like Wicked, Truth, Requiem, Haven… The nouns-as-words naming trend can sometimes give you a unique, interesting character name if it's only done once. Done over-and-over again, it looks like a teenygoth trying too hard.

    I just can't imagine someone's parents standing over their cradle and saying, "Hmmmmm…he looks like his name should be Fuschia. Or maybe Bloodblade. Yes, that's our baby Bloodblade! Who's a good Bloodblade? Is it you? Is it you? I tink it is! Snuggle wuggle widdle Bloodblade! I's gots your widdle bwoody toesies!" And I tend to keep that in mind when naming characters…even those who take on some assumed name later in life. Unless there's a really compelling, believable reason for a meaningful name, I say pass it by. (And seriously–if your character has a special name, interrogate yourself ruthlessly about it. Ask yourself if it's really necessary; if it's something hardcore, say "if they're so hardcore, why are they wasting time coming up with special badass names for themselves when they could be out beating the snot out of their enemies?")

    …I'm rambly today. Sorry. Yours isn't the only blog I've word-blurted all over today.

  9. Georgiana Says:

    I wonder if the person you quoted has spent much time in the public sector. In my experience people choose ghastly names for their children. Not only do we have way too many Pat Patersons, Bill Williams, etc, but I've seen children named Loch Ness, April Snow, Autumn Season and a bunch of others that probably wouldn't fly in literature. At one point I was making notes for the Big Book of Bad Baby Names.

    Parents who are conservative today may not have been when their children were born. I've also known more than one woman who named her child while still drowsy from anesthesia and wished she could change her child's name. And I've known loads of kids who had names like Forest and Sunshine who were named that by former hippies.

    Then there are the kids who do change their names, like Velvet listed above. Every Goth I've known went by a name that wasn't on their birth certificate.

    My youngest son, who is now 17, went through a phase when he was three where he insisted on being called QueeQuog. My sister changed her name when she was eight or nine and completely stopped responding to the old one. Annoyingly she wouldn't tell us what the new name was, we had to guess.

    Then there are people who like their names but don't like what happens to those names. My middle son is named Cullen and he isn't too pleased with a certain author who has "ruined the name of Cullen." You can imagine what he finds when he does a Google search on his name nowadays.

  10. Abby Says:

    Georgina – I wasn't so much pushing for boring names as I was reminding about consistency (it being twitter of course, kind of limits the depth of discussion :). Having a character whose parents are ex-hippies called them Mary is as unbelievable as a pair of 'normal', conservative parents with a kid called Raven. Sometimes us authors forget that our babies are actually, well, somebody else's!

    Also, period accuracy is something else to think about… I don't think it really became mainstream to give babies such unique names until fairly recently (I mean, in a given class you'd get Sarah's and Amanda's and Lucy's and only a couple of more unusual ones, whereas now it seems the opposite). Somehow, there are never as many Britney/Jessica/Megan's as the 1990's would imply! The baby name registry/charts from the year of the character birth are always a huge help for me, to keep track of what names were actually in fashion.

  11. Carrie Harris Says:

    There's a bit in Good Omens that turns this stereotype on its head and always makes me laugh. The characters are trying to name a baby that is supposed to be the Antichrist, and people keep suggesting names like Wormwood and Damien and such, but the parents just want to call him Bob or something normal like that.

    Can you imagine? Bow down before Bob, the Destructor of the World!

    (Yes, I know they ended up naming him Adam. I'm just cracking an admittedly not that funny joke.)

  12. dust Says:

    Hm…I do have a bartender named Sam Adams, but the main character thinks it's funny, so it must be okay. And I named a prim, librarianish character after the Dewey decimal system, but I don't think anybody but me will ever care πŸ™‚

  13. Amy Lynn Sonnichsen Says:

    I always think of The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde, and all the hilarious problems the name causes … and of course the irony that everyone claiming to be "Ernest" is a liar. Great stuff. Oscar Wilde can pull that kind of stuff off flawlessly. Oh, to be so witty!

  14. tamara Says:

    I found that my characters seem to name themselves. One of my main characters actually has a name I've never been particularly fond of –I won't say it here, just in case someone with that name is reading this :)–I like the name now, because I like the character…but from the beginning it just didn't seem right to call him anything else. Anyone else have that experience?

  15. Michelle Says:

    Too funny! (Especially the Lupin bit!)

    I think any Bad Guy in a fantasy is a good example of this. Sure, he's Lord Molokov now, but what'd his mommy name him?

    (Bob, Destructor of the World…LMAO.)

    I might be guilty of over-thinking names, though. I have a WIP loosely based on early 1900's America, and many of the characters' names are taken from historical figures. (Nel Blythe- a reporter based on Nellie Bly. Things like that.) It's meant as a tribute more than anything else.

  16. Rexroth Says:

    Tamara, you just described how I name everyone.

    After a couple weeks, I look the name up in some baby naming book and do a double take and say "oh, well… that's appropriate." It's kind of eerie.

  17. Gwen Hayes Says:

    I think nicknames are better for characterization anyway. I wrote about a demon expeller named Daniel Morgan. His friends didn't call him Dan or Danny–they called him Morgue.

    And with YA, half the fun is giving them a name that doesn't suit them so they can angst over how lame their parents are. What they go by, either on their own or what friends call them, is a great to "show" who they are (or who they hang out with) rather than "tell".

  18. Georgiana Says:

    Abby, you make excellent points. I use baby name charts myself sometimes. It's kind of weird how the top boys' names stay fairly steady while the girls' fluctuate. It's almost like their clothes. Boys' tend to be more boring and uniform while girls' are all over the map. I often think boys have had the short end of the stick ever since the Renaissance ended. All that plumage just gone. It's sad.

  19. gwen hayes Says:

    Georgiana is right. We need to bring back plumage.

  20. mariana Says:

    I think that meaning is involved in the idea of "name", but that meaning must have a context where it is used, for example in a novel, or in an ontology of the English language.

  21. Moth Says:

    I realized I kept naming my heroines with long, complicated names that then shortened to (usually) boyish nicknames.

    Nicola went by Nic.

    Samantha went by Sam.

    Rhenada went by Rhen (of course SHE was in drag as a boy)

    Now, I'm making a more conscious effort to mix things up. Current heroine is named Theresa and goes by Tessa or Tess. That's girly, right?

  22. Jennifer Nelson Says:

    My MC in my ms has the name William. (I just submitted my query to you!) One common response was, "This guy is too charasmatic to have such a boring name." After reading this, I feel so much better that I stuck to my choice-so thanks!!

  23. raj Says: