A rose by any other name …

I love naming characters. Heck, I love just naming things. Anything. I named my backpacks when I was travelling (yes, plural – I went through a couple) and I name most things I use on a day-to-day basis. I have a particular fondness for slightly unusual names, but I rarely make up names or spelling because … well, that’s a different rant.

When it comes to naming characters I tend to choose names that are “favourites”. I have never used names like Jessica or Kyle, but Lachlan makes frequent appearances in my stories. When writing for my cousins, their names feature prominently, of course, and when writing nonsense stories in my head I like to come up with odd combinations, like Destiny Jones.

Naming characters is an art. I use baby name books (and the fabulous baby name website) to ensure my characters have meaningful names and I often use the name meanings as inspiration for characterisation. There are clichés like calling a character Blaze and having him develop fire-throwing powers, but you could use Aidan (meaning “Little Fire”) instead. A simple example, but names can be especially important – especially if your reader is anything like me.

I churn through novel after novel and I often don’t remember names despite remembering detailed scenes. “Weird wizard guy blasted the hot wizard and I thought it was ridiculous until the hot guy made that crazy proclamation and I could finally relate to the weird guy because the narrative took a turn in perspective.” That’s not an uncommon response from me. I will remember, in detail, metaphors and symbols from novels. I’ll remember the denouement of novels read several years ago, but damned if I can remember the protagonist’s name. Or the book’s name, for that matter (thus I’ve started writing a list to aid my memory). I read The Hunger Games trilogy and loved it, and I loved when whatsherface took her sister’s place because I could wholly and completely understand her motivation, the reasons for her wanting to protect her family, yet still could not tell you whatsherface’s name. Kitty? Tilly? Oh, Katniss. Thanks, Google.

I was always terrible with remembering names, even when I was a teacher. Despite being able to name every person in my office now (and there are over 40), I maintain that I am still terrible with names and only remember them because it’s part of my job. Is it, then, a part of my job – as a reader – to remember characters’ names? Or is remembering what they did and why they did it enough?

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8 comments on “A rose by any other name …

  1. I envy you. All of you. Naming characters (and places) is my least favorite part of writing. Either I don’t feel like I put enough time into it and the name doesn’t ring true, or I do what you do Tom and spend days finding a name, which often feels like wasted time because I either end up changing the name later, or none of the readers will remember it anyhow. That said, I use the same baby names website. Nice post though (and I look forward to the rant against inventing names).

    • Naming places is another thing – I hate coming up with names for imaginary towns or countries or anything in between. It confuses me. Terribly. People names are much more fun!

  2. Yes! I absolutely agree – naming characters is one of the most important (and enjoyable!) parts of the writing process. I think there are some great literary characters that would be utterly uncompelling were it not for their names.

    An interesting method I sometimes employ for choosing surnames is by looking at street names when I am driving. I once wrote a story about a law firm that I named “Scotforth, Rockwell and Lodge” after the first three street names I encountered, in that order too. And it just worked perfectly!

    Thanks for this post, very thought-provoking!

  3. I take great care in names, perhaps more so than necessary. But sometimes that care can pay off. I’m writing an audio script that’s a prequel to a novel I’ll be publishing fairly soon, I hope. Both stories are set on Mars, but the script (short story length), is really about why people would leave Earth to come to such a desolate planet to work and live. One character is a scientist, but also a singer, and the song she sings in a festival at a remote science station is a key element in the story.

    The name Ann popped up into my head for the character, so I used it in a first draft. Nothing special about it. But the guy who’s helping me write the song (actually he’ll probably write most of it) needed a fleshed-out back story to her. The next step, also just popped into my head. She’s from New Zealand. I try to emphasize the international heritage of all the characters, and I hadn’t used NZ yet. But she needed a last name, so I looked up surnames for that country to find something authentic and interesting.

    Found the name Catlow. That sounded interesting. But it was also a link. So I clicked on it, and Ann’s backstory serendipitously dropped in my lap. The Catlow’s landed in New Zealand in 1863 after a voyage on the barque Victory of 112 days, about the time it would take Ann to travel to Mars from Earth more than two centuries later. The Catlow’s first child born in NZ was named Annie. This is too great of Karma to pass up to have Ann named after her great-Aunt many times over. There was even more details and old news items about Annie and her brother Blackburn (a really great name). And it all presents a great theme for the song, bookending the voyage of 1863 to land on a lush island, and the voyage at the end of the 21st century to land on a dry shore. My story takes place on the edge of a dry lake bed at Shalbatana Valles, a real place.

    My only problem is can I use the name Catlow as is, for their descendants are still around? It was there genealogy studies that I apparently stumbled upon online. I may have to change it, at least a bit, to truly fictionalize my character

    • That’s an amazing story! Perhaps you can contact the family and ask them for permission to use the name? The character will be fiction but you can acknowledge that inspiration came from your research – I wouldn’t think there would be a problem with that.

      I put a lot of research into names and symbols, I just worry that my poor memory insults authors who do the same!

  4. I find that I can never remember the names of characters in films, despite hearing them said repeatedly for two hours, but I often remember book characters’ names.

    However, I hardly think it is the most important thing. While I also enjoy choosing names that are meaningful (taking inspiration from J.K. Rowling, whose characters were splendidly titled!), as long as someone remembered the story, I wouldn’t be overly concerned that they couldn’t recall the name of the characters.

    Just my humble opinion. 🙂

    • I get especially confused if the main character’s name is one I cannot pronounce. It just ends up being a jumble of letters in my head! This, unfortunately, tends to happen a lot with fantasy novels …

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