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What's in a Name?
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
September 19, 2013
Although Shakespeare's Juliet makes an interesting argument -- that names don't matter -- plenty would disagree with her.
Names have practical uses and often both cultural and emotional significance. Furthermore, as writers, one of our first responsibilities is usually to name our characters. So, in this lesson we'll take Juliet's question and answer it from the perspective of the writer.
Do You Have To Give Your Characters Names?
No, you don't have to; in fact, a few nameless characters have made literary history. Consider Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. The authors of these books had excellent reasons for not naming their protagonists. Ellison's Invisible Man is a black man who is invisible in the eyes of society, so his not having a name in the story makes artistic sense. In Rebecca, the narrator is insignificant compared to Rebecca, the first Mrs. DeWinter.
Nevertheless, even if you write in first person, as these books were written, writing without names is inconvenient. If you don't believe me, try it! The exercise is bad enough in first person, but if you're writing in third, you will soon encounter serious difficulties -- especially if you have more than two characters. In other words, you will discover the primary reason characters have names -- so that you and your readers can tell them apart.
Telling Them Apart
Making sure your readers can distinguish between your characters has several implications which may differ from what we see in the real world. One is that characters in your novel will very rarely have the same name. However, if you were born in 1970 in the United States, chances are that you know plenty of Michaels and Jennifers, because according to the Social Security Administration, Michael and Jennifer were the most popular names given to babies that year. To check this out for any year going as far back as 1880, try the following link:
This link is also an excellent resource for anyone wanting to write an American story with people who lived from 1880 to the present. And, if you click on it, you will discover that the names Mary and John were the favorites for many years.
Speaking of Mary and John, in Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë uses the names "Mary" and "John" frequently, but never in a way that confuses the reader. For example, many of the Johns and Marys are bit parts, throwaway characters appearing on stage for only a scene or two, such as servants in various grand houses. Even when they are more significant, they appear in separate sections of the novel, again keeping the readers from becoming confused.
In order to help your readers keep your characters distinct in their minds, there are several things you can do. First, make the names dissimilar from each other -- especially first letters. It is hard on your reader if you call one important character Mary, another Marie, and another Maria. If you can't get away from this -- for example, you're writing about real people and they happened to have inconvenient-to-remember names -- then consider adding titles or descriptions to help your readers keep your characters straight -- or even replace the names with nicknames. For example, the emperor whose given name was Gaius Iulius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, is better known by the nickname Caligula, which means "little boot."
J. K. Rowling, in order to help her readers remember some of the vast set of names in the Harry Potter series, often uses alliteration for the characters whose first names don't appear that frequently. Examples include Severus Snape, Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Ravenclaw -- you get the idea.
Note something important: when you, as the author, name a character, you signal the reader that this character is worth remembering. If a character is not worth remembering, you may prefer to dispense with a name, and simply refer to that character by his or her role in your story. For example, you could call the policeman "the policeman," or the grocer "the grocer," or the taxicab driver "the taxicab driver." After all, in real life, we often interact with people without knowing their names.
Names as a Reflection of Society
The way people are named in your novel should reflect the culture of the characters and its setting. Even in a book set recently, the names the characters choose -- or those chosen by their fictional parents -- will be influenced by their groups within society. For example, a character with parents from Mexico may have a different name than a character whose parents came out of Poland or China. Selected names may also reflect levels of education or other items important to characters or their society. In fact, even though you may think that Tom is as likely a name for the characters from Mexico, China and Poland -- especially if their families would want to assimilate -- you may exaggerate the differences, in order to help your readers keep your characters straight in their minds. (Yes, this is stereotyping, but stereotyping can be useful.)
Names and how they're given can also reflect the society in other ways, and if you're writing about a different era, you may need to do some research to get it right. For example, in the Roman republic, women were always named after their fathers. The two daughters of Marc Antony were both called Antonia -- but major and minor were added to distinguish them. For more on this subject click here:
Here's a quote on some of the naming customs among Native Americans:
"...a father among some of the northern Athapascan tribes lost his name as soon as a male child was born and was henceforth called after the name of his son; a Thlingchadinne changed his name after the birth of each successive child, while an unmarried man was known as the child of his favorite dog."For more on this, try the following link:
Many cultures and subcultures still use particular methods of choosing names; a Chinese family, for example, may have a family poem and all the middle names of a generation may come from one of the lines. And here's a link to the technicalities of Hispanic names, which have a place for two first names, the father's last name, the mother's last name, and for married women, a place for their husband's last name:
The above examples only scratch the surface of what can be done with the names in a society. If you're writing, for example, science fiction or fantasy and thus inventing everything about your society, naming conventions can help you define it.
Events and Situations
Names may reflect events and situations important to the character. Children and characters may be named to reflect certain events. For example, many black girls in America were named "Emancipation" just after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Rulers or generals have historically often given themselves an extra name to celebrate great military conquests -- for example Germanicus and Britannicus -- or simply renamed themselves to celebrate greatness in general -- e.g., Augustus.
Names are often changed to signal changed situations for the character -- for example, many women take their husbands' last names when they marry, or when the Pope becomes Pope, he is rechristened. Or, as described above, a man may be named for his youngest son.
Occasionally these names will not be formal names, but simply nicknames. In these cases they may be very descriptive: Edward I of England was known as Longshanks because of his great height. Or, to return to Harry Potter, the hero himself is known as "The-Boy-Who-Lived" -- because, of course, he lived when he should have died.
Meanings of Names
Many authors give their characters names that are representative or evocative of their personalities. This technique has been going on for millennia. Let's return to Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet and consider the names of some of his characters:
Romeo -- similar to romance
J. K. Rowling does this frequently as well. She calls one of her werewolves Remus Lupin. The source of these names: Remus (one of the twins who founded Rome, and supposedly raised, even suckled by a female wolf) and Lupin (related to the Latin for wolf). The character Sirius Black transforms himself into a black dog upon occasion, and as you probably know, Sirius, according to Greek mythology, was one of the dogs of the great hunter Orion.
So, to answer Juliet's question, "What's in a name?" Plenty!
A version of this article appeared in Fiction Fix.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.