Musings on Character Naming

At the beginning of January, I attended the Linguistic Society of America’s annual meeting in Minneapolis. Meeting concurrently were the LSA’s sister societies, including the American Name Society. The ANS is dedicated to onomastics, the study of proper names. Practically all the ANS talks sounded fascinating, from “Ojibwe name giving” to “A sociolinguistic analysis of first names given to Lebensborn children within Nazi-Germany” to “How pet owners in Taiwan choose names for their dogs” (!). But the only one I managed to attend was “Contemporary authors: The naming of their fictional characters and places.”

The presenter, a novelist, discussed the origins of some of his own characters’ names and shared responses to a survey he had sent out to other authors (of literary fiction, mostly) about how they named their characters. The responses were fairly mundane, but I was struck by a remark one author made. He said that if you have a clear idea of your character’s personality, the name shouldn’t matter. The name shouldn’t have to fit the character, necessarily, because after all he knows lots of people whose names don’t fit them. I found this interesting for two reasons: 1) I think there’s an assumption that authors try to choose names that suit their characters in some way, whether by their sound or their meaning or their historical or intertextual echoes, and this author seems to discount the importance of character naming; and 2) He almost seems to suggest that authors sometimes use a character’s name as a crutch, a substitute for adequate characterization, and that they shouldn’t do this. Maybe I’m reading too much into his comment, but there’s plenty to ponder there.

I still think a lot of authors do choose their characters’ names carefully and with certain intentions. Perhaps an extreme (but wonderful!) example is Lemony Snicket. The names of the characters in A Series of Unfortunate Events are a carnival of literary allusions (one of the reasons I think this series is extraordinarily sophisticated and meant for readers of all ages). The more well-read you are, the more nods to literature you will pick up on, and I think this is appropriate given the value attached to being well-read in the series itself. I remember the moment I realized a character in The Hostile Hospital was named after the narrator of Albert Camus’s La Peste (The Plague–appropriate, right?).

As for my own character naming practices, since I mostly write fantasy, I usually either invent proper names (while striving to keep the names in a given world linguistically coherent) or choose a language/culture to draw proper names from. In Sparkers, most people from Ashara have names of Hebrew origin while people from Xana, a country across the sea, have names of Arabic origin. (I’m not sure I would make the same choice today, but it’s too late now.) Of course, Ashara and Xana themselves are made up.

I generally choose names by figuring out what sounds good or right to me. I consider the meaning of a character’s name, but it doesn’t necessarily have to have a clear connection to the character’s personality or role or actions. I just like to know what it is, and if it adds something subtle to the totality of who the character is, so much the better. That said, my main character Marah’s name means “bitter,” and this was a meaning I wanted. Marah started out a bitterer character than she is now, her bitterness having been tempered over years of revision. But the name of the other main character, Azariah, means something like “God has helped,” and I don’t mean this to have anything to do with who he is. I just liked the name.

On the other hand, I once did select some characters’ names much more intentionally. This was in a short story inspired by a fleeting episode in the Bible:

And [Gideon] said unto Jether his firstborn, Up, and slay them. But the youth drew not his sword: for he feared, because he was yet a youth. (Judges 8:20)

In the Bible, Gideon is an Israelite hero who here asks his firstborn son to kill two enemy kings who have killed Gideon’s brothers. I transposed this episode into an alternate 19th c. America and into the context of a violent family feud. The biblical text supplied the bare bones of my plot, but in my story, the father who commands his son to shoot two men from the rival family in vengeance is not a sympathetic figure. I kept the name Gideon for him to preserve the link to the Judges text and because the name fit well in the new setting. I abandoned the name Jether because I don’t like it and it’s too unfamiliar. Instead, I named the son Absalom. I chose this name for several reasons. Most trivially, it has the Swedish form Axel. My alternate 19th c. America was peopled by immigrants of English and Swedish origin, and I liked that Absalom could be nicknamed Axel. According to some sources (alas, I don’t know Hebrew), Absalom means “my father is peace,” and I liked the irony of this. Finally, I liked the reverberations of the name given the story of the biblical Absalom, the son of King David. Absalom rebels against his father, which in a way my character does too. But when Absalom is killed by David’s own men, David says, “[W]ould God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (II Samuel 18:33). Despite everything, David still loves his son Absalom in a way that my character Gideon does not love his son Absalom. However, the anguish my Absalom feels over the ultimate deaths of the men his father tries to make him kill echoes King David’s. The parallels are imperfect, but what interests me is the stirrings of connection.

Incidentally, in Sparkers, Marah’s father is also named Avshalom.

10 thoughts on “Musings on Character Naming

  1. I think naming a character is, in fact, a LOT like naming a baby. When you do the naming, you can’t really be sure how well suited it will be in the end, because that character/baby still has a lot of growing to do. The character will fill out the name and give it meanings, and the name in turn will shape the character.

    We named our son Byron because it’s a name we both liked. It’s a ridiculous name for a baby; there is nothing Byronic about an infant. And there’s nothing Byronic about him now, at least not in the usual sense of the word, and yet he is so completely Byron I can’t conceive of calling him anything else. He has remade the name in his own image.

    • That’s a good insight; upon reflection, I think it’s true that there’s a mutually influential relationship between name and personality/identity, whether for characters or for real people. Thanks for sharing about your son’s name!

  2. Fascinating. I also think that in fantasy and especially in children’s literature, names with meanings are important because they are a great way to enrich the symbolism in the world you’re creating; Lemony Snicket’s use of clever naming is *awesome*. I like how most of the Malfoy family are named after stars and constellations, representing their lofty ambition. I like how you can tell if a Hunger Games tribute is from a rich district or a poor one based on their name. And I enjoyed your character-naming process, as well. Perhaps trying too hard to have every character “live up to” their name, so to speak, is unnecessary, but don’t all of us try to do that in some sense once we find out the meaning of our name?

    On a side note, “Absalom” should mean something more like “Father of Peace”.

    • Ooh, yes, I thought about mentioning Harry Potter, too, and that’s a good point about the Hunger Games. I had to go look up the origin of Andrew when you mentioned trying to live up to one’s own name. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt that way about my name, but perhaps it’s because the origin of Eleanor is rather uncertain.

      As for Absalom, I feared that was a more accurate meaning, but the irony of the name in my story depends on the other purported meaning! Good to know, though.

  3. You’re welcome. Obviously if you want to write something more like a fable, unless the fable is also a satire on naming conventions in fiction you probably want a fit between name and character.

    I lost track of what else I might have been about to say and googled ‘Eleanor etymology’, apparently it’s a latinised form of a Germanic name which nobody knows. Lends an air of mystique semantically speaking. But maybe you know more about it?

    (I should point out I have a long established interest in proper name etymology and I’m not some sort of e-stalker. I acknowledge sharing that I have just googled your first name might be considered weird)

    • That’s quite all right! I’ve always been fond of the alia Aenor story of Eleanor. I didn’t know about the earlier Germanic origins. I guess it’s one of those names whose meaning we’ll never really know.

  4. I think the extrapolation you make about the author’s comments about character names not needing to be related to their character is good one. If you are going for some degree of verisimilitude then it’s better if some character’s names fit, and some don’t in an apparently haphazard way.

    • Thanks! I’m not sure I entirely agree with that author, since after all fiction is not real life. And making a character’s name “not fit” can also be a conscious choice (though then that’s no longer what that author is talking about, since he’s talking about names “not mattering”). And, of course, whether a name fits a person/character is a subjective thing!

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