Friday, February 12, 2010

What's In A Name?

Do you ever have trouble coming up with names for your characters?  Or do you even give much thought to their names?  Do you remember this quote: What's in a name?  That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Juliet said that in Shakespeare's play of star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. If you remember the play ( surely you've read it? ) Romeo and Juliet are from two warring families, so their love story is pretty much doomed from the beginning.  But Juliet say that a name is a 'meaningless convention', and for her sake, Romeo promptly rejects his family name...Montague...and wants to be rebaptized as Juliet's lover.

So...think about this for a minute. No, not rejecting the family name part, the part where Juliet says names are artificial and meaningless conventions.  Is that true?  Are names meaningless?  Sure, we can look up every name known to mankind and 99.9% of them will have some kind of "meaning" behind them.  But what do those names mean in terms of who the person is emotionally, mentally, physically, socially and spiritually?  Does the name exemplify the person?

Okay...let's take a little test.  I'm going to give you some names, and I want you to picture that person based on three things:  What does she/he look like?  What kind of clothes does she/he usually wear?  What is her/his personality like? Ready?  First name: Howard.  Second name: Kevin.  Third name: Emma. Now don't cheat!  write down your impressions before you read any further!

What did you come up with?  Here is what some students  decided the name Howard meant:  he is a computer nerd, wimpy when it comes to athletics, wears glasses, wears pressed chinos and shirts instead of jeans and T-shirts, is quiet and a "stand in the corner and observe life" kind of person.  Ummm...the name actually means someone who is "a guardian of the home and who has a bold heart."  Doesn't sound too wimpy to me !  Same students with Kevin: tall, probably blond curly hair, smiles a lot, may have dimples, good in sports, jeans are always clean and so are his T-shirts which are from the latest fads.  Well, that's a little closer, as the name Kevin actually means "handsome and out-going."  Again, same students and Emma:  short, dumpy, no personality, a "wallflower," wears skirts and sweaters even in hot weather.  WOW! way off the mark!  Emma really means a girl who is "smart, popular and a flatterer."

Get the point?  Names are important!  It is obvious that people ( even kids) get an image in their minds about what a character looks like, because of the name.  How many times do you suppose your readers have some idea of what your character looks like...or what he/she should look like...and it's totally wrong?

Therefore, when we name our characters, we need to pay close attention to, first, WHO our character is: what they look like, how they dress, what their mental characteristics are ( is he a nerd or merely very smart), what their personality is ( is she shy and quiet, or an out-going cheerleader type), and then try to project that persona to the reader by the name you've given him or her.

Don't forget last names, either.  The first and last names need to carry a kind of rhythm when they're said together, but at the same time, you need to recognize that the character's full name isn't going to be used in dialogue very often.  Sometimes an unusual last name can be the source of background information, and often an unusual or just plain strange first name can provide the basis for either an internal conflict for the character, or an external one...or even both.  The name that comes to mind is one of Lisa Yee's characters.  Lisa writes MG and YA fiction, and one of her best books ( I think) is Absolutely Maybe.  Her main character is named Maybelline Mary Katherine Mary Ann Chestnut.  Now anyone with that kind of name is going to have a major internal conflict AND external conflict with her mother for naming her that.  In the book, she calls herself Maybe.  Her mother is a former beauty queen who constantly causes Maybe problems, to the point that finally she picks up and leaves home.  It's a great book, one I highly recommend for more reasons than the names!

Needless to say, I could go on and on about names and what they do or can do to our stories and to our readers' imaginations.  But I won't.  I'm going to stop here, give you a couple of good links for names, and let you stew about this for awhile.  How have you named your characters?  Do you think the names suit the characters?  Do you think your readers will form an image that does or does not represent the true picture of the characters?  Think about it.  You may come up with some very different ideas about how and what to name your "babies!"

Some good web sites for names are:

Good luck!


  1. Hi, Mikki,
    I left you an important message on the boards. Did you see it?

    Word Designer

  2. Whoa! Mikki, my descriptions were waaaaaay different than the students' descriptions. I have always struggled to make sure my characters' names have suited them for the situation I put them in. Otherwise, my characters come back and fight with ME! And who needs an extra person to fight with? Not me.

    Word Designer