Monday, 31 March 2014

The Craft of Naming

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

33 comments:

  1. Love this post, Annie. I agonise over names and yes, continually ask the Lord for help. Sometimes a new character introduces themselves to me and it's often when I least expect it that a name will come to me. Might be watching a movie, scanning the paper or on my daily walks.

    My wife is also a very handy source of names.

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    1. Hi Ian - I was fascinated by your comment in http://australasianchristianwriters.blogspot.com.au/2014/03/so-why-write-speculative-fiction.html about the name Tagan and the character who introduced himself to you. I haven't had that experience - though I've had a new character unexpectedly appear and, when I've "invented" a name for that character later discovered the name fits perfectly. BTW, do you consider Tagan a Celtic name or a Persian one?

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  2. I've seen the way people live up to their names in real life - my nephew is Master of the House, and he does, even as a small boy. My mother is A Mighty Fortress, which is also true. Unfortunately, it means she puts her trust in herself, not in God. I am Valued by the Lord, and find it amazing that my non-Christian parents would choose such a prophetic name for me (not that I am valued any more than anyone else, but it confirms to me that I am valued by the great I AM.

    I was commenting once on a particular name choice in a friend's manuscript. The character was a reformed prostitute, and her name was Madeline. Madeline is from Mary Magdalene, who was historically regarded as a prostitute, although this is disputed. My friend says this is coincidence ... but are there coincidences in God?

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    1. Hi Iola - I don't think there are any coincidences in God, particularly when authors invest time in looking for the right name for their character. I never cease to be astonished how many people live "according to their name".

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  3. Names and their meanings have fascinated me for as long as I can remember, and particularly so when I saw Eph. 3:15 in a new way. "God's Poetry" then expanded on that revelation and impacted me greatly. Thank you, Anne, for the book and this post! I do so hope to meet you someday. Blessings, Rhonda Pooley.

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    1. Hi Rhonda - hope to meet you too one day. (And so learn whether Rhonda really does come from Rhoda with all of the vast implications that come from that...!)

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  4. Hi Annie,
    Choice of names fascinate me too. I always have the names of my main characters set in my head before I do much work on the plots, and I'd never dream of changing them. Although I'm usually oblivious about the deeper meanings and story correlations, nothing would surprise me.

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    1. I think the names and the plot in the best stories are so inter-related that I can understand your reluctance to change the names, Paula. I suspect the plot would change if the names did in any major way. At least my belief is that it should. Otherwise the names are just labels and that contributes to the 'unsatisfying' nature of some stories.

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  5. Thank you for this, Anne. I'm glad you wrote this. Correct and clever naming can add so much to a story.

    I have been fascinated by the names classic writers so cleverly created to give immediate pointers to character and personality: names like Pecksniff, Barkis and Peggotty, Noddy Boffin, Smike, Squeers and Dotheboys Hall, and dozens more from Dickens, as well as in the 20th Century names like Jane Marple, Peter Wimsey and Troy Alleyn. Of course there is humour involved in so many of them. The Boffins turn out to be not nearly such fools while Squeers turns out to be more evil than indicated.

    Thanks again.

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    1. Thanks for bringing this up, Marion. The creation of names in literature affects the real world, of course. Names like Wendy and Vanessa were first coined in books. Yet it's fascinating to see how they correspond older word fragments involving 'wend' or 'van'.

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  6. I agree completely, Annie. I had to change one of the names of my main characters because my publisher already had another book coming out with the same name. It was horrible. I agonized over it for ages, until I finally came up with something suitable. But at times I still think of that character by their old name. Names are so important. I also research the meaning of the names to make sure that they fit. I'm pleased I am not the only one who does this. :-)

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    1. Hi Rose - I thought it was a bit peculiar myself to spend months agonising over names until I heard Michael Morpurgo (author of Warhorse etc) say that it might be pathetic but he could hardly start a story until he had the right name. In Many-Coloured Realm I had to change the name of the talking penguin - after 2 decades with the same name - because Artemis Fowl had come out in the meantime. I got around it in the end with a variant spelling.

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  7. Wondering what Jennifer is.

    I have read books where the author has used a wrong name for the hero. On use the hero from her first book in the second once by mistake.

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    1. Jennifer is complex. It comes from Guinevere, meaning 'white wave' or 'phantom wave' but I also regard it as related to the 'jan' series of names, making it kin to the names which have some notion of gatekeeper attached.

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    2. Hi again, Jenny. I should add that the way I research names is to take into account

      (1) the meaning given in books
      (2) more significantly, the major symbols in a person's recurring dream

      I believe God addresses us by name in our dreams through the symbols that recur in them.

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  8. I love names too although I don't research them as deeply as you, Annie (but I could be persuaded!). When forming my characters, I roll their names around for quite a while to see if they're a good fit. Like Rose, I had to change the name of my hero in my latest book because I'd used the name of my husband's (adult) nephew ... awkward!

    But on a personal note, my birth name was Patricia, and I had that for all of ten days. My adoptive parents then named me Andrea which I'm very happy with. There will be significance in that I'm sure.

    Thank you for your intriguing and informative post.

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    1. Hi Andrea - don't take this the wrong way but you don't come across as an 'Andrea' and I think you've just explained to me why. And, obviously, I didn't start out knowing everything about names - it's been a long, informative journey.

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  9. I'm just curious Annie. Do you follow the Kabalarian Society's way of using names? That balances names and numerology.

    I often wonder about the made-up names of today. Some have no history behind them. African Americans are particularly into creating exotic sounding names.

    As for my protagonists' names, I sometimes have to wait before I'm happy about them fitting to their proven characters.

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    1. Hi Rita - I know nothing about the Kabalarian way of using names (though, when I'm looking for the meaning of obscure names, sometimes the only info is there, so I look at it just in case there is a clue). I have found - perhaps not surprisingly - that 'made-up' names actually do have meaning based on the sound. I divide the name into its syllables and look at the closest Hebrew words. Paul the apostle talks about 'stoicheion' - the elemental sounds from which the universe was created (amongst other things) - and I believe that is where to look.

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    2. That's interesting. And perhaps that's why all the derivatives mean the same. As for my personal name it comes from Marguerite. A daisy with white petals and an indigo heart. Uh-oh.

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    3. Hi Rita - a marguerite in the Middle Ages was not only a daisy with white petals but also a pearl. (One of the greatest of all medieval poems Pearl references marguerites all the time.)

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  10. Great post, Annie. I too, put a great deal of thought into my characters names. In one case the character's name fit right from the beginning. It wasn't until Iola Goulton did the editing that she researched and found out the incredible accuracy of that name's meaning to this particular character! In that case I feel God was leading me. Another time I actually felt God whisper a hint to the name for my villain.
    I consider the naming of characters of such importance that even when I have to change a minor character's name (for such reasons as it is too similar to another characters name) I agonise over the decision.

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    1. Hi Catherine - for many years I thought I was alone in spending time on my characters' names (and occasionally felt extremely guilty for wasting so much time over them) but now I think it's important for authors to know how spiritually valuable such an activity is.

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  11. Hi Annie, great questions!

    All the characters in my first book come from a list of convicts, my own nod to the era and legacy I wrote about. One name did not fit so well, and when Margie Lawson pointed this out I was more than happy to replace it with Margie's surname. :)

    Another character was named in an fundraising auction. The happy bidder paid well to see her mother's name appear in an historical where it fits perfectly.

    In my current wip, I'm using my son's first name for the hero. I needed a mate for my hero, so I pooled the names of my son's best friends and came up with one to fit 1878, A salute to his current friendship group.

    Lots of ways to choose and still keep the name authentic for the genre. :)

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    1. Yes, I agree... I often come across a name that I wouldn't have thought suited a character amongst the people I know and then 'tweak' it slightly. If I am actually using a person's name because I've been inspired by it, I always ask their permission.

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  12. Names are tough for me too, Annie. Because I'm writing historical fiction based on my family history and using real names, I have the issue of families using the same names over and over for grandfathers, fathers,sons, cousins, and editors pointing out how difficult it is for readers to keep track, even though I try to find variations of names; Thomas, Tommy, Tom etc. So the balance of authenticity and readability is difficult. Thanks for your thoughts.

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    1. Hi Carol - that is a more difficult problem. Even the diminutive doesn't always cover the issue because the reader may get confused anyway. I remember trying to read The Lord of The Rings and giving up because I became confused between Sauron and Saruman. The names were just too much alike for me initially.

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  13. i usually have an idea for the names with the story. Though i did change names once to mean something. The last one i wrote, i looked up Shakesperean names for a reason. I used that to name my main characters and family members.
    Generally i have an idea, last names give me a bit more issues, unless the characters come to me with it, which happened once.

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    1. Hi Melanie - all names have meaning whether we choose to deliberately craft that into the story from the beginning or not. I had the experience once of making up a name (and checking over 20 name books without finding it) and deciding to go with it anyway. I wanted the name to mean 'winter' and, years later, discovered it is a Norse name to do with winter.
      Shakespearean names is a very cool idea! Which book is that you used them in?

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  14. Annie, great post! I've always found the process of naming characters quite mystical. I search popular baby name lists, discuss possibilities with friends and family. I know immediately when I've discovered the right name, but I couldn't explain why I know it's 'the one'.

    A writer friend once told me she was asked by an editor to change the name of her hero. For me, that would be like putting a different hero in the story. I could more easily change a main character's name at the proposal stage because I've only written three chapters. The story would evolve with the new character's name. I think I'd struggle to change the name of the hero or heroine after I'd written the complete manuscript.

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    1. I agree. I think you've nailed the reason why it's so hard to change the hero when you mention the mythic/mystical aspect. In looking at character names - in my own or other people's stories - I often discover the plot follows a mythic arc related to the name. So if you changed the name, you'd have to change the plot... or risk the reader sensing there was something wrong, something that didn't quite satisfy.

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  15. Great post Annie. My first children's book Chasing after the Wind I had to change the name of the character because The name I had chosen was that of a girl who lived in our village and it could have caused problems. It took ages before the right name presented itself and then the surname had to be changed as well. But in the end it worked so much better than the initial name. At present I have a manuscript I can't find the right name for the character and I think that's why it won't come alive for me.

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    1. Hi Dale - do you still have copies of that first book? I would be interested to see it.

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