What’s in a name?

Choosing the right name for a character can be difficult for me and is something I think seriously about before continuing with a story.  I thought I had a name for one of my major characters in my current novel, and now that I’m almost finished with the book, I’ve decided I can’t stand his name.  And if I can’t stand writing his name over and over, then how will others tolerate reading it?

Most of the time when I’m reading a book, I don’t usually pay too much attention to the names of the characters unless the name is completely strange or hard to pronounce.  And then, the attention is usually negative.  For American readers who were discovering the Harry Potter books, the name Hermione was a stumbler.  Until the movies came out many people didn’t know how to say the name.  And when that happens, you can end up tripping over it every time it comes up.  (And yes, this is true too for those people not reading it aloud.  When there’s an unrecognizable or unpronouncable word, it breaks the flow of the story in your mind).

When a name fits perfectly you’ll know it because it is easy to remember and you can’t imagine the character being named anything else.  For you Tolkien fans think “Bilbo Baggins”, “Frodo”, and “Gollum”.  Of course, it helped that Tolkien was philologist and really understood languages. 

Names too can have symbolic meaning.  And this is OK as long as it isn’t too over-the-top and moving into the realm of allegory.  In his book “On Writing”, Stephen King talks about how he named his beleagured character John Coffey so that he would have the same initials as Jesus Christ.

More importantly, the name of a character has to fit in with their personality, the time, place and history of the setting, and with family background.  It would be difficult to get away with naming a character Keneisha when she is Irish and  living in 1800’s Ireland, and every other woman is named Mary.  This is one of the reasons I own three baby name books even though I don’t have any children.  When a name doesn’t fling itself out at me when I’m thinking up a character, then I’ll research one until I find something that fits.  It doesn’t always work, though, as demonstrated by my recent decision to change a character’s name.  I still don’t know what it will be and it is going to be a huge pain to fix it in the next edit.  Blech.



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2 responses to “What’s in a name?

  1. Mary Gutkowski

    Hi Heather, I found you!!!!! Great reading. I think you’ll make it as a writer.

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