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Monday, January 3, 2011

A rose by any other nomenclature...

How to name a character

What is in a name? How often do people truly think about the names of their most beloved characters? Is there anymore thought put into a character's name than just randomly selecting one in a baby name book? How do you name your characters?

The truth is, names can be very important. In writing, the names of the main and supporting characters are going to be repeated time and time again, and the characters are the primary vessel we use to guide our readers through the world and story we have crafted. So, you better believe that there is something in a name.

This post is going to dissect some of the usage of names in modern writing. However, there is more in naming than is dreamt of in my philosophy, so this is by no means a comprehensive study.

Let me begin by stating that I do not believe in "nameology" or "numerology" or any of their ilk, and neither do most writers. Nameology is the belief that your name actually MEANS something, can predict your future and lead to your happiness. It is also the belief that if you convince enough people that the garbage you are spewing is real, they will buy your book about it and you won't have to get a real job. If you believe in nameology, I do not intend to insult you... only your crack-pot belief. That being said, in writing, nameology is not as useless as it is in reality.

Many stories do indeed have characters whose names mean little or have only personal significance to the writer. While J. K. Rowling was coming up with the name for her main character, she chose Harry because it had always been her favorite boy's name. She even said that if she had a son, he would have been named Harry. Potter was the last name of a family that lived nearby while she was a child, and she always liked their name as well. But you can rest assured that there is more to the name than this, whether or not Ms. Rowling was completely aware of it. Imagine settling down to immerse yourself in a complicated world of fantasy with a boy from a background similar to yours. However, instead of naming this boy something simple and down-to-earth like Harry, the main character was named Reginald, Yehochannan, Yancy, or Aonghus. Unless this is your actual name, you would likely be turned off. Reginald has the connotation of being rich and snooty - not something people empathize with. Yehochannan, though a real name and not too hard to pronounce, is obscure, jarring, and takes up a great deal of room on the page. Yancy is a rare name that most young boys would see as "Nancy" and make fun of. Aonghus, along with many great Celtic/Irish names, is difficult to read and looks impossible to pronounce. Some names evoke strong emotions, so strong that they almost fall out of actual usage. If Rowling had named the main character Adolf, she would likely not be the richest author alive.

Some authors put a little more thought into their names. In Lord of the Flies, all the boys have simple, British names, and all of them are easy to remember and distinguish from one another. Piggy, one of the main characters, is obviously named after his looks, though one can rest assured that Golding knew pigs are very intelligent creatures. Ralph is Norse for Wolf Counsel. Like a wolf, he struggles with his nature. He shows alpha wolf traits by being elected leader and keeping the pack (of boys) together, for a time. Roger lives up to his name ("famous spearthrower") by becoming the executioner and torturer of the tribe. Finally, Jack's name has the connotation of being clever; a traditional character in many Germanic and English stories is the wily Jack, who appears in stories like Jack and the Beanstalk and has taken on the roles of Jack Frost and Jack in the Green (among hundreds of others). The name itself is based on John, which means God's Grace, or Jacob, which means "he who supplants." Considering what Jack Merridew does in the story, which meaning do you think Golding had in mind?

Next, there are the authors who pour over the names of their characters, and, I have to admit, I am one of them. Generally they fall into 3 categories: 1) names with connotations, 2) names with root meanings, and 3) new names. I will go through them individually.

Names with strong connotations, like Adolf, come with images built-in to the minds of the readers. Despite the personality of the character, the meaning of the name, or the time period of the story, using these names will draw parallels to their namesakes. A woman named Eve will evoke sensual, primal feelings, can involve innocence or innocence lost, and usually has something to do with beginnings. In Roman times, Lucifer was the name of the planet Venus, known as the Morning Star. The name itself means "light bearer." In Judeo-Christian tradition, Lucifer was the highest of all angels and closest to God, yet rebelled against God. Only in relatively recent years has this character and name been associated with the Prince of Hell, Beelzebub (who is actually a Philistine god related to Baal and seen as a separate demon by Christianity Proper), Satan (who, again, was originally an angel to accuses), or the Devil. Nowadays, you cannot get away with naming your child Lucifer, despite its benign origin. In fact, in 2009, a man lost custody of his 3 children after naming them Adolf Hitler Campbell, JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell, and Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie Campbell.

Many names, however, have less powerful connotations that can still bring great meaning and life to our characters. Jack is one of these names. They can have societal connotations or be used as inside jokes and references. If the name of one of your favorite people (real or not) isn't too outlandish, it can be a great way to pay homage to someone. One of the main characters (an alien) in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is Ford Prefect. Why would Douglas Adams name someone after a well-known British automobile? He explained that Ford had taken the name to blend in, having mistaken what the dominant life-form on Earth was. He had created a tongue-in-cheek satire on the prevalence of cars in human society simply by giving his character a funny name. Similarly, Rowling names one of her characters Luna Lovegood. Luna is the proper name of the Moon, and this brings a host of meanings and images that can help describe her, from lunacy to paleness.

Another way to name your characters is by looking at the meanings of the names. I personally enjoy using names with Latin and Greek roots. About 90% of the words we use can eventually be traced back to their Latin or Greek origins, though they may have to make a few stops on the way. By doing this, we can discover new meanings and origins of the words we use. I like to think of it as discovering the philosophy of our language. For instance, the root word of "ludicrous", ludus, originally meant play, sport, or training, and was used to describe elementary schools. The same is true for names. This can be as simple as looking at a baby name books or naming sourcebooks, most of which include the various meanings and origins of the names. For instance, Sophia means "wisdom," and Matthew means "gift of God." And there are many other languages to chose from! If you want to be able to look up names from all over the world, by meaning or name, I recommend using Behind The Name.

If you want to be able to create your own names, there are several ways to do it and still make it sound good. In some situations, simply stringing words that describe some aspect of your character (or poke fun at the character) can work well. Some examples of this are Neville Longbottom, Ford Prefect, or any of the 7 dwarfs. Speaking of dwarfs, in fantasy worlds, they usually have descriptive, simplistic, and often slightly funny names.
However, you may want to delve deeper into the world of naming than simply using words. Here is where learning other languages, or at least faking it, can come in handy.

The reason I enjoy using Greek and Latin so much is that I learned them in high school, so I tend to refer to latin and greek roots for words. When building the name of a character, I sometimes look for the greek word I wish to use to describe some aspect of the character and mutate it into a workable name. For instance, in one story of mine, a character has been gifted (cursed?) with seeing the truth. I chose to use the greek word "martureo" for his name, which means "to bear witness." After some fiddling, I came up with Marturin, an unusual, simple surname that might stick in the mind of the reader and still has some meaning (you may recognize the English word that stemmed from it, "martyr"). Many of the names (and word and phrases) used by Shakespeare (such as Desdemona) did not exist before he used them, and most of them have some vague root in Latin or Greek.

The last and most complicated way to come up with names for your characters is to develop the language or alphabet from which they are derived. J.R.R. Tolkien is famous for the depth and number of the languages he created, from which he derived most, if not all, of the names in Middle Earth. However, Tolkien was not only a celebrated writer, but an accomplished linguist (philologist) and skilled teacher. Creating your own language is not impossible, but it does take years of study and a passion for developing it. After all, most people have not mastered their native tongue. There are ways to cheat, but do not expect people to start teaching it to their kids.

If this is all too much, or you feel too limited by these guidelines, remember that there is no wrong way to come up with the names of your characters. It could be simply an artistic expression, an anagram, or a sound you fell in love with years ago. But do keep in mind a few basic rules.
1) Know your audience.
2) Make sure the names of your characters are not too similar to each other - or too foreign to the readers.
3) Be consistent
4) Keep the names relatively simple and pronounceable
5) Don't brag about your naming skills, particularly in your story

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