Monday, June 8, 2009

What’s in a name?

When I get past the basic outline of a new story I design all the significant characters before I start writing. I like to fill out a character inventory for each to really know these folks so I’ll be able to know what they’ll do in a given situation. There’s a lot I want to know about a character’s background, history and personality, but I always start with the name.

While I agree that character names shouldn’t be important, the truth is that we humans are pretty superficial and we draw a lot of meaning out of a person’s name.

A character’s name can tell us a bit about his family. Who is your character named after? Who named her, mom or dad? Does she have a name that indicates parental personality expectations? Faith? Chastity? Felicity? Hope? And if so, has your character grown into her name, or taken a stance in opposition to it, like fictional adventurer Modesty Blaise?

Last names often indicate nationality with all the assumptions they bring. So if you have a fellow named Patrick O’Connor in your story and he ISN’T Irish, you’d better tell us quickly, because we’ve already slotted him. And in fact if he isn’t, there’s a story hidden there that will tell us a good deal about him.

Similarly, nicknames tell us a lot about your character, but we need to know if he took the nick himself or if someone stuck him with it. If you introduce me to Tiny I expect to meet a giant. But if her pals call her Brain, she might be the one who always has a plan, OR she might be an idiot. Either way, the fact that she accepted that nickname tells us about her confidence level and self-image. And remember, if a name has meaning for you, even if it isn’t obvious, others will pick up on it.

For example, I write a mystery series about a private detective named Hannibal Jones. I gave Hannibal a common last name because in one aspect I wanted him to represent an everyman. But his less common last name required more thought. And no, he was not named after any villainous cannibal.

Hannibal’s father was an American soldier married to a German national. Dad wanted his son to be a warrior, so he decided to name him after a great military leader. Alexander seemed too common. With a German wife he knew Napoleon would be a bad choice. Then he remembered that he DID know of one great African general. The original Hannibal was born in Carthage (Northern coast of Africa, across from Italy) around 247 BC. He is generally considered one of the greatest military leaders in history. He is famous for battling the Roman legions (the definite underdog in the Second Punic War.) He is remembered for using elephants in his army and for catching the Romans off guard by crossing the Alps.

So the name Hannibal resonates with African heritage, military leadership, strength, creativity, and the willingness to face a much stronger opponent. If you are literate, you may subconsciously read all of that into my detective’s name and have a whole assortment of expectations concerning this character without even knowing it.

BTW, the latest Hannibal Jones mystery, Russian Roulette, has just been released this week on and Kindle. It will be in stores June 13th.


Mark Troy said...

I agree that a name is important, especially in a protagonist. It can tell a lot about the character's background, it can add nuance to their personality, and give the reader a hint about how to approach the character. Just look at Chandler's Philip Marlowe, the philosophical, literate and mysterious private eye named after Christopher Marlowe, the philosophical and mysterious play writer.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Names are so important. I frequently start out with one name for a character and change it several times in the course of the first draft as I get to know them better.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Austin S. Camacho said...

Great comments! And I should have mentioned it, but my characters' names also often change as I learn more about them.

Lillie Ammann said...

This is interesting. I just started a series on my blog about writing fictional characters. I linked to an article by Holly Lisle who recommends against starting with a name but waiting to name the character until you more about him or her. There is no right way to do anything about writing.

Lillie Ammann
A Writer's Words, An Editor's Eye

Austin S. Camacho said...

Everyone's process is different. In the outline my characters are sometimes just letters of the alphabet. We soon learn what works for us. ;-)

Jean Henry Mead said...

I usually have such a large cast of characters in my novels that I have to change some names because they start with the same letter or are similar sounding, which I learned early on is distracting to the reader. And,like so many other writers have experienced, the original name remains untouched once or twice in the printed copy. Now, that's confusing. :)

F. M. Meredith, author said...

I love coming up with names for characters. I collect graduation programs, mystery con programs and peruse them for first and last names that sound good together and fit my character.

And if you need an ethnic name all you have to do is Google whatever nationality it is you're looking for plus names--some sites even tell what the names mean.


Dana Fredsti said...

It's really hard for me to write on a project if I don't have the right names for my characters. I did end up changing two names in MFH after the first draft was finished because they just clunked or were too twee.

Hannibal Jones is a very memorable name, btw!