Sunday Writing Discussion #5: Naming Characters

Currently I am writing a story that features a main character who is a mechanic. He works on derelict equipment and scavenges parts from defunct machinery. He is a very solid type of character who then begins to experience something remarkable and this causes him to take extraordinary and very out of character action. I can picture him. He’s a big guy with muscles earned from lifting engines and moving heavy stuff. He’s quiet and clever. The kind of person who is called steady and reliable.

Did I mention that the story is set in the future? A rather dystopic future?

This character’s name has been eluding me. In trying to come up with his name however aspects and details of the story are coming more into focus for me. I am getting a feel for the society that he is a part of. I am envisioning who his parents were and what was important to them– so important that it would influence the naming of their son. This background also influences the character.

On a whole other level, I also have to think about the connotations that a name brings up. This can be an important part of the characterization in a novel. Charles Dickens came up with some of the most memorable names in English literature. The names themselves evoke the essence of the characters. Names like Cornelia Blimber the prim school teacher, Ebenezar Scrooge, Seth Pecksniff the architect and hypocrite, etc. Finding the right name can set who the character is.

If a character is an everyman kind of character, then I try to use names that are not too extraordinary. The list of male names is pretty limited if I am sticking to what are typical names. Popular male names have actually varied very little in the last century. These are names like John, David, Richard, Joseph, Robert, etc. Female names are much more variable. If I am writing a piece set in another time period I google to find out the most popular names of that time period. Jennifer and Ashley actually pretty accurately tells me a woman’s age very frequently and if I know her age from there I can often tell what socio-economic class she was born into.

Readers come to characters with all of this type of information loaded into their prior knowledge, whether they consciously know it or not. This information informs how they interpret a character. The connotations of a name influence the concept of a character that readers build in their imagination.

So if I name a character an unusual name this will have connotations also. For instance if I name a character Thaddeus Thistledown an image springs to mind and it isn’t one of a used car salesman wearing white patent leather shoes. The name actually comes from a tongue twister and I always pictured him as a tall, gangly, elderly man wearing a tweedy three piece suit and wire rim glasses who has a dandelion pouf of marvelous white hair. Why do I picture him as an elderly man? Perhaps because Thaddeus is a name I associate with my great grandfather’s generation and generations before him. Why do I see him with such a headful of white hair? Perhaps because it reminds me of the thistle down that Theophilus Thaddeus Thistledown sifted in the tongue twister.

Even ordinary names have connotations. A book that I like to use to find out the connotations of different names is “The New Baby Name Survey” by Bruce Lansky. To create the book people were surveyed to find out the connotations that they associate with various names. For instance Michael is a common male name. The connotation from the book is: “Like the archangel in the Bible, this Michael is an angel– for the most part. People describe him as a sweet, caring, loyal, and trusting family man. He’s known to be humorous and a good friend. His one downside may be too much ego and not enough patience.” The book talks about celebrities that are associated with the names as well. In this way a writer can know and consciously use the connotations associated with a particular name.

In addition to the connotations of a name, the culture and ethnicity of the character needs to be considered. A woman in India in the Victorian era named Mary would be assumed to be British. If the character is Indian she needs an Indian name such as Madri, Ishani, or Gita. A book I use to find such names is “The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook” by Sherrilyn Kenyon. Names from other cultures also need to be considered for possible connotations that they might bring up outside of their own culture. A friend of mine has been writing a novel and the main character is Senegalese. Because of her ethnicity the character’s formal name is Fatima and she is called Fatou. He has been using the name as a placeholder. While no one in Senegal would envision a fat woman from that name, because the naming conventions are different than in the West, readers in the West may not be able to see beyond the first three letters of the name and envision a character who is not fat.

Naming a character is just one step in creating them. There are other things to consider and the character out of necessity for the story may shift and change over the course of writing the story. It is important also to consider who the character is within the context of the story. Too many characters with similar names can confuse readers.

While it is trite in some ways to say it, names do have power. Power to characterize. A writer can consciously use this power or potentially be at its mercy.

I am still thinking on my mechanic’s name.