On Writing: What’s In A Name?

Monday, October 31

For me, naming is a huge part of character. In fact, I cannot get very far in a novel until I have the correct name. I can be brainstorming and jotting down plot notes and some basic character sketching but until the true name clicks, I’m rudderless. The character doesn’t become real to me until that name solidifies.

The truth is, names matter. A lot. Both in real life and in fiction. So much goes into a name; parental hopes, ancestry, gender, ethnicity, and social status.

Because names carry all that weight, they can also be a hugely valuable tool in terms of world-building, setting an emotional tone, creating an integrated setting, and of course, characterization. The right name can also help anchor us in the story world, whether it be historical or contemporary or Other. Think how different the name Araminta is from Jennifer, or Carradoc is from Justin.

Plus all words have connotations, even names. The way they sound, feel, roll around in our mouths as we say them. All those elements affect how we perceive a name as well. As writers, we can use that, make it work for us. The names can do a significant amount of “showing” so we don’t have to waste time “telling.”

And then some letters are just funnier than others. I think u is the funniest of the vowels. Perhaps it’s something as juvenile as being reminiscent of certain forbidden words, or hearkens back to the ugh of the caveman. I don’t know, but it amuses me.

There are also certain consonants that are funny (b, f, d, g, k) and others that are stately (s, t, r, c) and others still whose sound brings a lot to the table, (b, g, s, l, z) Let those inherent qualities in letters work for you as you choose your names.

(Now you all know how slightly whacked I am about letters, but that can’t be helped.)

Of course, one of the most obvious things names do is convey shades of character. Clearly a person named Mandy gives off an entirely different feel than one named Cassandra.

Not only can you have a lot of fun with this, you can let the names do some of the heavy lifting in terms of setting the tone. I did this a lot in the Theodosia books. It was especially fun naming the three governesses who bedeviled Theo in Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris. They were short, walk on roles, so I didn’t have much space to dedicate to describing them, so I turned to their names to help set the tone of their personalities. One was unbearably repressive, another a tippling nervous wreck, and the last was a lovely looking woman, but with a vicious edge to her. The names I assigned them were Miss Chittle, Miss Sneath, and Miss Sharpe.

There is also a pompous lord named Lord Chudleigh, the chu being very reminiscent of chump.

For the Beastologist books, I wanted a family name with the venerable weight of generations and tradition behind it. But I didn’t want it to take itself too seriously, almost like an inside joke. My first choice was Dinwiddie. I’d seen that name on a billboard somewhere and fell in love with it. However, the Beastologist books are chapter books, so I needed a shorter name. I finally came up with Fludd. (Note how many of my favorite letters it has in there!) It’s short, not too common, and carries a slight sense of ridiculousness about it—especially when paired with the concept of veneration.

That’s actually something I do a lot—go far back in family history to understand where the names came from. For example, a mother who has an unusual name and hates it, will often give her daughter a more popular name. Someone who felt their name was too bland, will be inclined to give their child a more unique, individual name. Ethnic roots come into play here too, many people trying to tap into those as they name their children. Names in the 1950s were wildly different than the names we give our children now. But also the interests and focus of the family can effect names. A family of classical scholars might name their children Persephone and Augustus.

If you feel that approaching names this way feels too contrived, let me tell you that you couldn’t possibly make up the following names of REAL PEOPLE I’ve run into:

Mr. Swindle – a bank manager—no lie (and he’s very upright and responsible!)
Dr. Kwacko – a doctor (Now tell me name’s aren’t destiny!)
A name I used in the Theodosia books, Fagenbush came from a kid in one of my kid’s classes back in elementary school.

Of course, I ran into a completely different set of problems with the His Fair Assassin books. For one, many of the names were of real people, so I was stuck with those. And la! All those French pronunciations! Another tricky impediment to names in historical periods is that often, a given time period had about five first names they used for about 90% of the populace! In medieval France/Brittany it was Anne, Louise, Mary, Jean, and Marguerite. But thankfully, writing in the age of Google, it is fairly easy to access some of the more unusual names from medieval French and Breton town records, and therefore keep the character’s names unique, yet not anachronistic. However, I must admit that I made up the names Ismae and Annith. The name Sybella was an adaptation of Sibylla from THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.

Besides Google, a great place to find historically authentic names is in the index of research books on the time period. A quick scan often reveals a number of names that can at least be used as a jumping off point.

And, phew! That was a lot of information on names!







Previous post:

Next post: