What’s in a Name?

by Alan O’Rourke, c/o Flikr

Holden Caulfield. Romeo, Desdemona and Falstaff. James Tiberius Kirk. There are certain names in fiction that just stand out. They become more than just a name; they share an identity with the character, add an air of personality of mystery, or even imply a metaphor that evokes a deeper meaning to the character. They’re crucial in good fiction–a good character name might computer a reader’s attention, but a great name will capture their imagination.

I was thinking this week about fellow Indie Writers, and the names they use for their characters. There are tons of great examples.
Ryan Casey’s main character in What We Saw is named Liam, a common enough name for its English setting. To a Canadian like myself, it was just different enough from what I’m used to that it stood out, even above the other very English characters. Liam is familiar, but sufficiently unique to be set apart from the others in the book–just as it should be for a main character.
Lindsay Buroker has a litany of great character names; Sicarius, Maldynado, Amaranthe and Basilard are really colourful names that each evoke their separate personalities. When you read the Emperor’s Edge books and first come across these characters, you get the impression that they couldn’t be named anything else.
In Brian Rathbone’s Call of the Herald, we come across Catrin Volker. It’s a name that seems common and ordinary–but there’s an almost thrumming power beneath it, and it’s just different enough from ‘Catherine’ that it sounds exotic; fitting for a fantasy novel set in a world like ours, but only just.
David Alastair Hayden’s Chains of a Dark Goddess has some wonderfully exotic names that have a very Latin feel. There’s no doubt that the world of Pawan Kor is a fantastical one, but giving the names a Roman theme gives the book a firm military feel. In a way, the names are as much a part of the World Building than his description of how magic works.
Some of my favourite character names come from J.M. Ney-Grimm. Her books have a mythic Norse feel to them, and the names are evocative of that. Just like Hayden, her names are a part of the World Building. When you come across names like Sarvet, Elspeth, and Gefnen, you know what you’re getting into.

But why do these names work? I think the prime point is choosing a name that describes your character, to a point. Buroker’s Sicarius is a case in the point: Sicarius is Latin for Assassin, his role in the story. Yet that’s something that most readers wouldn’t know, or wouldn’t think to look up; it stands as a great name because even when a reader does figure it out, it only adds to the character. Caitrin is another good example–you can almost parse out her name and use it as a rough character sketch. She’s a common girl who’s rather suddenly (and unexpectedly) granted enormous power; Catrin is an unassuming name, but Volker sounds important, almost virile.

When I try to think of character names, I often start with a character sketch, and pick one or two words that sum up their personality, or their role in the story. One of my first major characters was Sojo (the “j” pronounced as a soft “y”). He was a nomad, never settling in one place–a sojourner. I think it’s a bit obvious now and have put him aside in favour of a new protagonist, Tobias Osir. Tobias is a character taken from the Apocryphal Book of Tobit, where we walks with the Archangel Raphael in a spiritual journey–much like Osir will in Tapestry. Alkut (my main protagonist) and Ahbinzur (another protagonist) are taken from the Kabbalah; Malkuth is the Kingdom of Earth, the beginning of the spiritual journey where one is concerned more with worldly things than enlightenment. Binah is Understanding, or a special kind of insight. As represented by the Queen of Swords in the Tarot, Ahbinzur fits that bill pretty well.

But having a name that means something isn’t enough. It has to be catchy, memorable, and most of all, easy to pronounce. J. M. Ney-Grimm makes a good point:

It’s a good thing to keep in mind: if your reader can’t pronounce the name after seeing it a few times, chances are they’ll give up and gloss over it from then on–and this can cause them to distance from the character. Or, at the least, not to get as invested as they could have been. Even worse, a dedicated reader might stop and figure out how to pronounce it whenever they come across it; until they get it, they’re taking themselves out of the world of the book, and that’s a bane for a writer.

Most of the examples here are fantasy books, and there’s more leeway as mentioned above. But you don’t want to make them too exotic. Once again, if a reader can’t relate to the characters’ name, they’re not going to relate with the character–that goes for place names as well. A name should always be something at least vaguely recognizable, so there’s an inherent connection to the reader. George R. R. Martin is a master at this; almost all of his character names are subtle variations of names we’re familiar with–recognizable, but just different enough that we know he’s not writing in our world.

So where do you find names?

Scrivener has a name app built into the program; you give it a certain number of parameters, and it’ll cough out a bunch of names. As much as I love the program, I’ve personally never found this feature useful–but then, I like names that mean something, so Scrivener isn’t going to give me anything I’ll like anyway. J. M. Ney-Grimm suggests looking up lists of foreign names, and this can work well too. You’ll likely come up with something your reader isn’t familiar with, and that’s a name that will stick out. Just keep in mind that those names may be foreign to you, but they won’t be foreign to all readers.
I also like to use Google Translate and the Anagram Server at Wordsmith.org. If you want a certain cultural feel, Translate is great; pick a few choice words, punch them through to a different language, and play with the results. The Anagram Server is a bit less useful, as it will only give you real words–still, it can spur your creative juices. That’s where I came up with Ahbinzur (the “zur” is a suffix given to mages of a certain caste in my World).
Another great source, of course, are baby name books. There are scores of websites that give baby name lists, so I won’t even begin to list them here. For the same reasons noted above, this isn’t my favourite source, but it’s useful.

But in the end, there’s one overwhelming reason to choose one name over another, especially for your main characters: they have to be simple. They have to roll off the tongue, stick in your reader’s memory. You want a name, like those at the beginning of this article–not only memorable, but evocative of your story as a whole. If your character’s name can’t be separated from the story, your readers won’t forget either.

Next week, look for another Indie Writer Review–this time of David Alastair Hayden’s Who Walks in Flame!

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3 comments on “What’s in a Name?

  1. indytony says:

    For my writing, I draw extensively on Biblical names. Often my characters display traits of their namesakes.

  2. […] What’s in a Name? « Speaking to the Eyes […]

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