The Power of The Name

I have two words for you here.

Natty Bumppo.

You know, when it comes to naming your characters, a little thought can go a long, long way. What in heck was Fenimore Cooper smoking, do you think? Do you suppose he sat there at his desk, pen in hand, thinking “Hey, I’m going to write a whole series of books here about a man who’s half poet/half woodsman, and have him running about the American forests having adventures with the French and the Indians… what’ll be a good name for a man like that, a man who will be a diamond in the rough, who will have a purity of heart and mind beneath his frontiersman garb? A man who will show us a way of life that’s closer to nature and to the elements and that has a simplicity and even a sort of innocence that we, in our so-called civilisation, have lost and can’t regain? A man who will embody the sheer, heart-stopping romance, the thrilling adventure and the blood-tingling excitement of the frontier? Oh, I know! I’ll call him Natty Bumppo.”

I mean, didn’t the man know that even if a reader got through prose so dense you could use it for radiation shielding, that no one could take seriously a man called Natty Bumppo? Could you? Seriously?

Two more words.

Fitzwilliam Darcy.

Well, whatever Jane Austen was smoking when she came up with that one, could I have some please? If ever there were a perfect name for a character, don’t you think Mr Darcy has it? Solid worth… check. Aristocratic connexions… check. Hundreds of years of privilege and a family that probably came over with the Conqueror… check. Riches and education… check. Pride… check. A handsome name to denote a handsome, attractive man… check. Brooding romantic hero… double check with knobs on. It works. It works perfectly. Mr Darcy is the quintessential romantic male lead, and how much of that is supported and enhanced by that perfect romantic name? After all, do you think he’d be as iconic if he were called Egbert Shuckleman?

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All right, being English, white and privileged, I am no doubt bringing all my own baggage to bear there, and undoubtedly to some different place and culture, Egbert Shuckleman might be the man all maidens dream of. But that aside, my point here really is that the Bard was way, way out of line with the words he put in Juliet’s mouth about roses smelling as sweet even if (to sort of quote the immortal Anne) you called it a skunk-cabbage. And if he’d ever run across our friend Natty, I’m sure the Bard would own to his mistake.

Naming your characters is incredibly important. Apart from allowing the reader to track who everyone is and who’s doing what in the plot, a good name supports the characterisation. It becomes the character. It has to fit. Not only does it need to fit his or her personality and story arc, it has to be of the right time and place, be memorable, have significance, yet not be gimmicky or over-exotic—unless, maybe, you’re writing for the daytime soaps. It takes a little more effort than thumbing idly through a baby names book.

In the Taking Shield series, I was looking for names for my two male lead characters. One, the hero, is the eldest son of a Fleet commander. He’s rich and privileged, well educated, and has had doors opened to him all his life. He hates that. He wants to earn his way on merit. He isn’t flashy or exotic. He’s governed by the principles his family live by, what he calls the family ‘triple goddess’ – honour, duty and service. I needed a name that sounds solid, that can be shortened into a nickname that only the other male lead can use, but that isn’t too pretentious or overly aristocratic (no Fitzwilliam here, sadly). For days I thought about—and rejected—solid old fashioned names such as Edmund or Nicholas (both briefly in the running) and finally ended up with Bennet. To this day, I can’t say why there was a large click! and an equally large light bulb going off when I added that name to my possibles list, but Bennet it is. It works for him. It gives him a slightly earnest feel, a seriousness, a feeling of solidity.

His love interest, on the other hand, was named in twenty seconds flat—and not by me, but by a friend, over lunch. I was bewailing the difficulty of naming a cheerful, ne’er-do-well, devil-may-care Fleet pilot, who loves life and embraces it with huge-hearted fervour; a gambler, a chancer, a man who dances his way through life, taking nothing seriously. Certainly one who’s never taken love seriously, although he is wildly enthusiastic about sex. Brave, loyal, skilled—and insubordinate, free-thinking, independent… a sort of intensely attractive rapscallion floozy.

At this point, J took a sip of her Chablis, rolled her eyes and said. “Flynn.”

I stopped in mid-word, the wind most decidedly taken out of the sails. Flynn. Of course! Perfect. And so Flynn he’s been, for several weeks longer than Bennet has been Bennet.

Those names work for the characters. They’ve become the characters. I could no more, at this stage, change either of those names without having to seriously rewrite their entire characterisation than I could walk on the floods in the Thames Valley. My characters are Bennet and Flynn, not Edward and Rod, or James and Luke.

Bennet and Flynn.

Perfect.

So, how did you come to name your characters, and how important are their names to you? Do share!

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8 comments

  1. I’m currently (off and on) working on a mystery novel based in a Martian colony. One of the basic ideas of the novel is exploring the importance of history – personal, familial and societal. Naming of characters and their use of those names has become an important part of character development. The main character — Irene Marcus: I wanted something that would strike the reader as a little old-fashioned but strong and practical. Another main character is her younger brother who creates some family strain by refusing to use his given first name in his public life because it has “Separatist” political connotations that would be detrimental to his business ambitions. By doing so, he creates tension not only within his family (his mother was and still is an ardent believer in a failed political movement) but creates a dichotomy in his own daily life between family and friends who still call him Shelton or Shel, and the business associates and authority figures to whom he is Andrew.

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    • This is something that I’ve just touched on very, very briefly in my rewrite of the beginning of Golden Scarab – how a name puts people into a certain social and family place. Edward Fairfax Winter is Ned Winter, mostly, which identifies him as a member of House Gallowglass and people can see instantly where he fits into society. As Edward Fairfax, he gets to pretend he isn’t First Heir and can play away at naughty ‘molly houses’ like Margrethe’s, in Covent Garden, without being recognised for who or what he is. Like your Shelton/Andrew, the double name allows him to present different facets of himself.

      Names are fascinating things for allowing us to play with stuff like that, aren’t they?

      Keep working on the novel. I’d love to read it someday.

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  2. Yes! Names are so important to the character and places! I’m glad someone else gets it.

    Back in 1997, when I decided to write down some of the adventures I put my main character through, I spent about two weeks looking for names, before I wrote a single word. I used several different baby name books, my trusty Dictionnaire d’ancien francais that I picked up at a library book sale for about fifty cents, and, when I got desperate, an unabridged dictionary.

    My main character is short (about 5’5″ in modern terms); stubborn; a helluva swordfighter; dedicated to his people, his company and his honor. His name is Aneirin Mandosiane. According to the baby name dictionary I was using, Aneurin (Aneirin being the alternative spelling) means “honor” in Welsh. It doesn’t really, but I can pretend, right? Mandosiane, and a lot of the other names in the Infamous Novel, comes from the Dictionnaire. A “mandosiane” is a type of very short sword, which suits him perfectly. His children, with one exception, are named for family members, so their names have less meaning, yet still suit them well. The one exception, Robardel, is the changeling of the family, the only blond.

    Del, the second son, is even shorter than his father (about 5’3″), but. like his father, an exceptional swordsman. Del is also flit, though in the closet until the second novel. The word “robardel” comes also from the Dictionnaire, and means “qui aime la toilette,” or essentially “fop.” Trust me, it suits the guy. *g*

    As for the actual name of the IN, it’s The Cartasonne. Once again, my lovely Dictionnaire d’ancien francais came through with the name I needed. A “cartasonne” is simply a unicorn. The symbol for my main character has always been a rampant unicorn, so I figured, why not?

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    • I *love* the way you’ve come up with the names here. I always wondered about Cartasonne and where that came from. It’s helpful not to stick to English, too – totally agree about that. The names you’ve chosen fit the characters very well and I particularly like how you’ve been canny about choosing words from your Dictionnaire that focus on those aspects of them that are important, but are subtle and clever. Not in your face.

      As an aside to your Dictionnaire, I wanted names for a social system that’s based on oligarchy, with ‘Houses’ being the government, and each House has a section of government that is theirs in perpetuity. House Gallowglass, the one my hero’s love interest belongs to, owns the Treasury, for example, so by default is senior to every other House because they hold the nations’s purse strings. My hero is a sideshoot of House Stravaigor.

      The names all come from a glossary of archaic words, and are all old words for certain trades or occupations. Gallowglass was a name for a mercenary warrior. Stravaigor means “vagabond”, which suits Rafe down to the ground. There’s the Cartomancer (map maker) who runs the diplomatic service. That glossary of archaic words was an absolute godsend!

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  3. I really struggle with naming my characters for this very reason–it is so important! Not only do I want the name to reflect something about that character, but I need to *like* it as well. And, to be honest, if I’m going to be typing it over and over again, it has to be something I don’t have to look up the spelling each time I type it! 😉

    Typically I decide what the character’s background is like. If a character is predominantly of one ethnicity, say, Irish, then I will look up surnames with those roots. Once I pick a surname, I will use a baby book (I like names with meanings that reflect on the characters too) or a random name generator to see how first names look when paired with last names. I think there is are combinations of syllables that are more pleasing that others–so in general, I tend to have short single syllable first names paired with multi-syllabic surnames. If the first name has more than one syllable, I tend to choose a last name with more syllables than the first–like I did when I chose “Sarah Madison” as a pen name. 🙂

    Great post! That ‘click’ you felt when you named Bennett? That’s what I feel when I know I’ve got the right title for a story. In fact, if I don’t feel that click, then the story itself flounders until I find the right title. Weird, I know.

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    • “And, to be honest, if I’m going to be typing it over and over again, it has to be something I don’t have to look up the spelling each time I type it! ”

      Amen! Or something that I dislike. If I had to type something I disliked a couple of hundred times, I’d *hate* it by the time I’d finished. That’s really not what I want to feel for my protagonist!

      In Shield, I opted for a no surname society, mostly because there is a cast of 100s over the course of the books and really no one would be able to keep them all straight. It’s bad enough with just one name! If I have to add family names, I’ll go mad.

      I followed your system though when it came to Gilded Scarab, in making the surname longer if possible. Ned Winter, Rafe Lancaster work really well for me. Daniel Meredith isn’t quite as euphonious, but at least the two names balance.

      Oh heavens yes, I’m with you on a title. I should show you the list of possible titles for Gilded Scarab some day. About a page long, it was. It went on for ever.

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  4. You do realise that now I’m always going to think of Mr Darcy as Egbert Shuckleman, don’t you? Thanks for that.

    But that aside, I couldn’t agree more with your post. Another thing I find about names is that it’s only when I’ve found the character’s name that he or she comes fully into focus for me. I have a pretty good idea of who they are by the time I go searching for their name, but some things about them only come to light once they have the right name. It’s as if that’s the step that brings them into life as independent characters who want me to tell their story, which is not necessarily the story I think I need to tell. And yes, I think I’d better step away from the keyboard now before this looks any more strange than it already does.

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    • If it’s any consolation, I can’t get Egbert out of my head either.

      And yes! The name is the last step to them becoming more than words on a page, but living breathing creatures who sometimes surprise you by the route they then take. So very important to get that right!

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