By Anne Hamilton
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. So Shakespeare famously wrote. The ongoing implication is that names don’t really matter.
Many authors, following this philosophy, treat names as interchangeable labels. Their plotlines don’t alter at all when the heroine receives a global re-branding and moves from Mary to Anastasia-Sophia. The storyline doesn’t budge in the slightest when John, the name of the hero, is swapped out for Virgil.
I find this kind of attitude remarkably odd. I find it baffling when the author hasn’t taken the time to proofread the text, thus overlooking the fact Mary and John still appear once or twice. It’s a huge jolt to me as a reader when such names appear.
Should authors care enough about their characters to select their names carefully and not randomly?
This may seem too trivial to worry about but names can make or break a story. Names carry such a huge payload for the reader that, if authors overlook this aspect of a novel, they’ve undermined it completely. One step wrong with a name and you’ve put your reader off-side from the get-go.
A fantasy starring Prince Bob will lose me on the first page. A historical romance featuring Kylie and Dwayne won’t get to first base. Likewise a biblical retelling focussing on Lisa and Ace or a contemporary drama about Hildegarde and Athelstane. YA steampunk with Jo and Sid might just work if they are really Josephine and Sydney… but even these are right on the edge of the conventions.
Amongst the unwritten rules about writing are naming conventions. Names create immediate expectations in readers’ mind. None are neutral. Most of us mentally envisage entirely different characters, even body shapes, for heroes named Flint or Fred… and do so the moment the character is introduced. As readers, we expect different outcomes and choices from characters named John, Johnny, Johnnie, Jon and Jonny.
An entire set of anticipated behaviours is already built up in readers’ minds from the first time we see the hero’s name. When another character in a story uses a nickname for the hero, a new payload comes into play, telling us—in a single word—the nature of the relationship between the two and what they think of each other.
My first fantasy, Merlin’s Wood went through over a dozen drafts before I found a publisher. At one stage one of the beta-readers made a curious comment about the villain: ‘He’s cardboard. I think the problem is his name.’ This was long before I was as deeply into studying names as I am now but I took the thought on board and pondered what names gave me a sense of darkness as soon as I saw them. I chose one of these and was soon beset by a different problem: the character came so alive with so much evil I had to tone his behaviour back, given it was a children’s book.
We tend to overlook the fact that, quite apart from the extra depth the right name automatically adds to a story, there is a spiritual aspect to naming. In Scripture, naming is a prophetic action, speaking out the identity and destiny of the individual (or even town). This is why, I believe, we get so much satisfaction from certain stories: in the best books, the characters finally into the destiny their names have prophesied for us as readers.
So, how have you chosen the names of your characters?
And: have you ever asked in prayer whether God wants to have some input into your choice?
Anne Hamilton is fascinated by names and their role in the process of inspiration. She has written extensively on name covenants in her multi-award-winning book, God’s Poetry: The Identity and Destiny Encoded in Your Name. She sometimes writes about naming at www.fire-of-roses.com/wp