If the name fits…

This isn’t about that experiment I did about a year and a half ago with how readers interpret/react to the names of fictional characters.  That blog post will have to wait for another time.

This post is about the idea that every fictional character needs a name giving an unmistakable clue to their background or personality or appearance — preferably all of the above.

<sarcasm> After all, it works that way in real life, right?  </sarcasm>

I know:  Fiction has to make sense, even if real life doesn’t.

Whatever.

Tell me, how does it make sense that a child’s parents would know at the time of his birth to name him something which perfectly fits his personality as a twenty-year-old?

How does it make sense that only dark-haired, dark-eyed girls and women can be named Melanie, or that only short boys and men can be named Paul?

What does my name tell you about me?  Am I tall?  Short?  Thin or heavy, athletic or otherwise?  What color is my hair?  My eyes?  How do I dress?  Is my hair neat and tidy, or do I let it grow too long?  What are my usual mannerisms?  My posture?  Do I smile easily?  Wave my hands when I talk?  Flirt with women I find attractive?  Am I responsible and courteous?  What are my political views?  Am I religious?  Do I know how to swim?  What is my favorite sport?  How many times have I seen The Return of the Jedi?  Do I have relatives in other counties?

You don’t know.  And you can’t know any of these things just because you know my name, yet many readers expect that every fictional person they encounter will have a name that “fits” everything about them.

That’s just… silly.

Okay, another fictional example:  Her name is Galadriel — who is she?

Trick question, that.  I was referring to Galadriel “Gilly” Hoskins, the protagonist in a middle-grade novel.  Trust me, this little girl is not the type to wear silk gowns and speak softly.

Chances are, the younger Mr. Brust doesn’t habitually dress in monochrome like his namesake, either.  (Oh, look it up yourself if you really want to know.  It’s not as if it’s a secret, with Steven Brust mentioning his children on the About the Author page in the back of one of his older novels.)

I know someone named Dexter.  No, he’s not a serial killer.  🙂  Nor is he in any way dexterous.  In fact, the few people who know him and also know what his name means sometimes joke about how poorly that name fits him, because Dexter is a klutz (and almost lost half the fingers of his right hand as a result of that klutziness, which would have increased the irony of his name).

When you’re trying to find the perfect name for a character in your story, don’t over-think it, and don’t insist that the character should embody the literal meaning of the name you do choose.

 

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About Thomas Weaver

I’m a writer and editor who got into professional editing almost by accident years ago when a friend from university needed someone to copyedit his screenplay about giant stompy robots (mecha). Having discovered that I greatly enjoy this kind of work, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use ever since as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom. I'm physically disabled, and for the past several years, I’ve lived with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have six cats. (The preferred term is "Insane Cat Gentleman.") I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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10 Responses to If the name fits…

  1. I wish people would just give characters more or less neutral names unless they are trying to make a point. Weird names tend to distract me from the story unless there’s some reason why they have that particular name.

    Liked by 1 person

    • One person who read my brother’s novel The Remnant before it was published complained about one minor character being named Jane — “Too normal,” or something to that effect. (Her full name is Jane Svenson.) Apparently characters in science fiction novels should never have names that the reader could expect to encounter in real life. (The protagonist in that novel is Hrothgar Tebrey, but no, THAT name doesn’t count as sufficiently unusual… )

      As you say, there should be a reason why if the character has a name uncommon for the culture they’re from. Granted, a lot of people these days do give their kids odd names for the sake of making them “more unique,” but even that ought to have a point in a story — how the kid feels about being named Daffodil when all of her friends are named Jennifer and Ashley and Monica, for example. Does she like standing out in a crowd, or does she resent her parent’s ‘weirdness’? (And for cryin’ out loud, would people PLEASE stop assuming that only gothy teenager girls are ever named Raven? Really… It’s starting to get on his nerves even more than the vague jokes about ‘getting stuck in a rice-picker.’)

      Like

  2. svrtnsse says:

    In my WIP the goddess of the Anfylk is named Anna (Goddess of Lazy Afternoons and Other Simple Pleasures). The full title is a bit of a mouthful so her people tend to just refer to her as Anna. My impression is that it works pretty well once the reader gets into the story, and becomes familiar with the setting. People who come across the name for the first time seem to have issues with it as being very ungodly though.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mei-Mei says:

    Oh, I am guilty of over-thinking names. I like them to have some kind of significance to the character.
    One of my teens-with-elemental-powers is named Tesla, because I thought it was a pretty name (nickname Tess). To be fair, I was like 13 when I named her and had no idea who Tesla was, but she has water powers, not electrical. Now I can’t bear to change her name because I’ve thought of her as Tesla for 15 years. The story is not set in our world, so I can’t even make a joke about how inappropriate her name is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have a character named Frost who’s a redhead; even in-story, people think that’s odd. And Geoffrey Meeks… Let’s just say that his surname may cause some readers to jump to an incorrect conclusion about his personality. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Laura L. says:

    Whew. See, being new to this whole Not a Real Writer thing, I didn’t know I was supposed to be sweating the names of the characters until I read this post. Now I know Not To Do That. The one time I really thought about a name was for a protagonist in a short story. That character was going to be dead by the end and it was going to be great fun killing him off. I wanted his initials to be P.S… not for post script but for Pond Scum, my favorite moniker for my Ex. Writing is so cathartic…

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Well, parents ought to have SOME idea of what their kid will look like, after all – genetics. But writers have a quick moment to grab the attention of readers – and maybe that is not the place to put to great a burden on the reader’s stereotypes and transforming them?

    I’ve had to change a few names since I started the WIP, including the protagonist’s (when I realized she was too close to something else), and several minor characters who ended up clashing for one reason or another. Then the fear is you won’t remember all the places this needs to happen, and someone will get to Chapter 17, and wonder who Melanie is. Global search is your friend, but don’t forget constructs such as ‘Melanie’ll do it’ or… gak! We have to remember EVERYTHING. This writer job is too hard.

    And don’t do what I did: the WIP starts with the protagonist agonizing as she waits to go on national television, where her pseudonym will be revealed, and she will be outed. It is tricky to keep such things tidy.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Agreed… but I guess in some circumstances, it can work (I mean, having the names reflect personality). Two examples that come to mind are Harry Potter, with the target audience (at least for the first book) being children or young people, for whom names like “Malfoy” and “Voldemort” can be hints, and the Farseer Trilogy, where the naming of children becomes part of the fantasy world’s specific lore so that names like Chivalry, Verity and Regal (sons of King Shrewd) don’t seem out of place.

    And obviously, a writer who understands these conventions-cum-pitfalls can use them to her advantage: say, giving a character a “revealing” name, but abbreviating it until the cat’s out of the bag and the true personality has been revealed in a twist, so that the reader goes, “Ah, that makes sense now.” Or, deliberately giving a character a name that will mislead readers.

    Interesting topic – thanks, Thomas! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Pingback: MORE Cool Stuff from the Archives | North of Andover

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