Story development — the importance of a character’s name

child emerging from water - Story development

Except for parents who are about to name their child, and therefore consider names incredibly important, in general we take first names for granted.

You know what I mean. Joe is the mechanic. Edward the lawyer. Elise the soccer mum. Brenda the speech therapist. Names are just convenient labels to refer to people.

Only occasionally names make us pause and think about what they might mean to their owners. And when this happens is usually because of some horrible name someone has been given.

However, according to some psychologists names have a measurable effect on people. For example, names immediately raise expectations linked to cultural biases. Besides it seems that the easier a name is to pronounce the better received it is.

In short, without our knowing names can color the way we perceive people.

Classics never age

Sure, someone might argue that Shakespeare gave Juliet the famous line about roses and names exactly to refute such assumption.

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet;

And indeed, this seems to ridicule the idea that names can change our perception of the real thing. Yet we must also remember that Romeo and Juliet revolves entirely around an issue of names. Those of the two opposing families…

Be that as it may, while in real life names play all in all a relatively small role, in fiction things change. A lot.

man made of lego - character development

Because fiction is a version of reality that has been pared down to the bone. And as a result every last detail has to carry out some important function. Indeed, usually even more than one at a time.

This is why our characters have to be thoughtfully named. And why we should use their names as a sort of unobtrusive literary device.

To pack in them as much meaning as we possibly can.  To add nuances to the story we are telling. Yet all the while remaining invisible to the readers.

Story development – 4 tips on how to name your characters

1- Avoid names that are too obvious

In a farce, a book for children, or some ironic work such names can be used. An example is How-Yu-Bin in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl.

However, in general instead of giving your characters names that are too obviously related to their role in the story, you can make use of roots and foreign words as well.

In this way you still  manage to convey roughly the same meaning, but in a subtler and more nuanced manner.

2 – Make them plausible

Of course you can invent pretty much any name you want. But there’s a reason if even in fantasy books names follow a logic. For example, think of the names Tolkien invented in the Lord of the Rings. They follow rules linked to the different races and eras. For sure, you’ll never heard of an Elf named something like Gorbag. (Really, bag of gore?)

Names are also linked to different periods. So you must make sure your characters are not going around with a name that is completely unusual or unlikely for the period. That is, unless the name itself has a story to tell.

3- Make your names stand out

Really it’s useless having a bunch of heroes with wonderful names if these are all so similar to each other your readers cannot remember who’s who.

Antonio and Anthony… Can’t you come up with just one more name? And in case you absolutely need to use such similar names, help your readers to tell them apart. For example, you might have Antonio gesticulating a lot, like a typical Italian would.

The same goes for Greta and Grace, for Madisons and Addisons,  Michaela and Michelle. Finally I think that with Milly and Molly and Polly things get really out of hand. You’d better stop and start over.

Of course, if you’re writing some piece of meta fiction about confusion and mistaken identities…well, you might toy with those names and ideas.

But, and this is a huge but, also a book about confusion has to be written in a style as clear and effective as possible. After all readers can laugh about a character being confused exactly because, thanks to the author’s clean style, they know perfectly well what’s going on. Ah, you want your readers feel confused. Then, I’m afraid you’ll have no readers at all.

4 – Unintentional meanings

Lastly, when you invent a name there’s always the possibility you’ve not invented anything at all. So, check your name out and make sure it doesn’t mean anything you find unacceptable for your story.

This article is about urban legends and marketing but it can help you better understand the potential risks of coming up with an invented name you haven’t bothered to check out.

The real power of a name

The suggestions I listed above are all useful. But sometimes when I come up with a new idea for a story I have no idea about the name of the protagonist. And the more I think about her the more I grow confused about the name I should bestow on her.

In these cases I resort to one simple solution. I give the heroine one of my favorite names. Then I go on to attach that name to someone I actually know. Then I start writing.

In this way, usually, by the time I hit page ten I have a name for my protagonist, and I also have clear in my mind a list of features she possesses. Features that nine times out of ten have nothing to do with the real person I first used as a model.

This trick works for me. So when you’re stuck and all the names you think of hurt your inner artist’s aesthetic sense, you may want to give it a try.

Apparently the very act of writing, especially during a first draft, kicks in motion your creative apparatus in a way no brainstorming session can ever hope to match.

A last word

Story development is more about what your characters do and think and their relationship with others characters than about how they look like. So don’t sweat it. A name will dawn on you sooner or later.

And remember that George Bernard Shaw was able to write pages and pages  of perfectly fine dialogue between anonymous characters. He didn’t give a damn about names.

Finally, you have also to consider that names are like lyrics. You may be tempted to use a particular song to create a certain mood. But there’s no guarantee that the song you use to create, say, a nostalgic atmosphere will induce the same feeling in your readers.

With names the same applies. There’s no reason your darlings are also the darlings of all your readers. No reason at all.

Pictures: eLabaElisaRiva – kellepics – kellepics

One Comment:

  1. Years ago, I read only a single page of a book. The story sounded interesting, but the character names were awful. They were all unpronounceable – Jlmrskllt, Brttllkz, Tnbvlgm, or some such nonsense. I figured I could go with Jim, Brit, Tom, but then the author threw in a Brtlzkz which was so similar to the other one that I closed the book and gave it away.

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