What’s in A Name?

Naming Characters

“O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” Now, imagine if Shakespeare had misspoken, and instead named our fair compatriot Julius. Or Anthony. How would Juliet have made out? “O Julius, Julius! wherefore art thou Julius?” No. Okay, “O Anthony, Anthony! wherefore art thou Anthony?” You get the picture. Anyway, for us writers, names are very important and serve many purposes. Namely, they clue your reader in, to who your protagonist is, (and by extension, the rest of your cast of characters). Clues for example about their profession: Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple.

Make your characters memorable. I remember meeting Cormoran Strike for the first time in the Cuckoo’s Calling and being bowled away. Thinking, here is the name of a man who stands out. Who against all odds, seems different. I am certain you can remember some of the names that have stood out for you in the past. Frodo Baggins, Darth Vader. Lord Voldemort, etc. Think of reasons why these names continue to stick out. Do something similar for your characters.

One way to do this might be, to get your hands on a copy of the Character Naming Sourcebook, which someone else might have also been blogged about here. Trust me, I copied a few chapters a few weeks ago just to get started. In her 2005 book, Sherrilyn Kenyon provides 10 hints of how a writer should go about naming their characters. Choosing names from a wide range of origins, e.g. English, Dutch and Gaelic. And in case you need a little more help, she has also included advice from among a host of other well-known, published authors.

Here, though, I will mention three of them just to get you started. Rule number one, make sure that whatever name you use, captures the persona of that character. Or in other words, make sure that it means something. Does Cormoran Strike seem to you like a private investigator who gets his man? You can believe that he does. Or Hercule Poirot. Is he a man who is always using as he always says, those little grey cells (to outwit the villain). What about your character? Can you give him or her a name that says something about who they are? Brandi Daniels for example was supposed to be a kid, who like her namesake, Brandi Carlile, could be counted on to be inventive, an eventual initiator, someone who might even steal the spotlight. (Does she seem that way to you?)

Rule number eight, use genre appropriate names. Hence, Cormoran Strike and V.I Warshawski make great private investigators. But if you cat them in a romance novel, would the name still fit? Would he make a great Rhett Butler. Or could she be a Stella? Or consider Zoel Q-24, who appears in a sci-fi YA novel, called Glitch. If she was to make a crossover debut in a western alongside Longmire and Shane, would she seem appropriate. Does her name have enough heft?

And finally, the last rule. Avoid populating your fiction with the names other authors have already made famous. Say for example, Anita Blake and Harry Potter. As an aside, I should mention that after falling in love with the name Lucien in The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, I used it for my messenger in The Way of the Seer. Granted he wasn’t the main character, but then again, we all have to be careful. So I pinky promise…to never do it again. Well, now that I am aware of the rule that is.

What Poetry Can Teach Us About Naming Things

For anyone who has ever read, written or discussed poetry, it should come as no surprise that it can provide you with a rare insight into how to name things. What I am referring to here, may be seen as the appropriateness of a title. Consider Rita Dove’s American Smooth, W.S. Merwin’s Yesterday or even Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. To some extent, poets have a keen sense of time and place; and nowhere else is that insight more valuable, than to the writer of fiction, poetry and playwriting. Consider, the pieces included in Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard.

It was there, that I first realized the extent to which a good name can focus your reader. Force them to see the world through your eyes. Below, I will present a few examples. Hopefully, they will serve as a guide and be as relevant to you as they were to me. The first poem is called, At Dusk.

At first I think she is calling a child,
my neighbor, leaning through her doorway
at dusk, street lamps just starting to hum…

So here, of course, the title keys us into the setting. Sometimes, the name of the novel can be about a place. e.g. Viral Nation. Sometimes it might not be apparent to you at the start of the piece, but looking back, after mulling over it, you can find a title that best serves your purpose. Something that tells the reader about the work.

The second example is called Myth. Myth like with Greek Myths.

I was asleep while you were dying.
It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow
I made between slumber and my walking,…

Some of the poems from Native Guard, deal with the death of the poet’s mother. Others are about things she has learned. Myth gives you that feeling of being asleep. Being in a type of dream, like she is creating a type of myth in the way that she orchestrates the poem. In the novel, Glitch (by Heather Anastasiu), that I mentioned before, Zoel, talks about how she is changing, glitching and what would happen if anyone else found out. Is there something significant about your main character that could serve as a title? Eg. Jenny Downham’s novel, Before I Die, which like the title says is the story about a young girl who is about to die. Of course the novel, has been renamed to Now is Good; and was made into a movie that starred Dakota Fanning, but honestly I prefer the old name (even though it may seem a little bleak). It gave you a sense of what you were up against. Consider the following, the Abomination, the War of Art and 88 Killer.

The third poem is called, What the Body Can Say

Even in stone the gesture is unmistakable–
the man upright, though on his knees, spine

arched, head flung back, and covering his eyes,
his fingers spread across his face. I think

grief…

Taken in its entirety, I am sure you would be able to get the full picture of what this poem offers. Here though, I can only give you a snippet of the piece, with its gestures.  Things we cannot help seeing. Feeling. Something also expressed in the following poem, which might be a bit graphic, (content wise) because of the way it presents the image of people. But please keep an open mind, and consider the piece being located at the center of the page. With the title like the overhanging roof of a house or building.

Suji Kwock Kim’s, Occupation (taken from Notes from the Divided Country).

The soldiers
are hard at work
building a house.
They hammer
bodies into the earth
like nails,…

Kim here is making reference to the Korean War, in which her grandparents and father perished. Here though, she is only mentioning things that the people would have seen and felt. I admire the haunting nature of the things she presents. Here though, it is that sense of inhabiting a space. And what it means to be occupied. In the same way, you will have to think about what will be presented in your novel. And the type of experience you want your reader to gain. What do do you want them to see? Hear? Consider: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Lean In and Married Love.

What is your novel, poem, play about, at its core? What clues are you going to provide for your reader? Here, consider the appropriateness of the title. And if you have time, check out some of the blogs I follow. Eye-Dancers has a piece on Names called: The (Name’s) the Thing (Or, what Should I Call It?). While these four bloggers have poetry posts: FracturedGalaxies, Legends of Windemere, mysuccessisyoursuccess and Write, Write, Write, Sleep, Write. Some of them have more than others but do check them out. See how the titles of the pieces work for you, and the piece that is being presented. Then apply what you have learned to your own work, all the while, making sure that you have given subtle clues to your readers.

But above all, choose wisely. Make sure that the name says something about your character, or highlights something about your novel. So, until next time, keep reading, writing and posting. And good luck with all of your endeavours. Oh, and check back next Friday, for a post on novel beginnings.

2 thoughts on “What’s in A Name?

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