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.
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.