What’s in a name? In literature, a lot. Naming characters involves layers upon layers of consideration: time period, ethnicity, race, religion, geographic location, personality, themes, hidden meanings, the character’s role in the story, etc. You must research name meanings, origins, and sometimes how people react to certain names. You even have to consider how the name sounds. That’s a lot of work for something that seems so trivial, right?
Yes and no.
We walk through our everyday lives, meeting new people and learning their names, without ever thinking about all the thought that their parents/guardians put into naming them. Nevertheless, people usually name their children with purpose.
That barista at Starbucks named Angela? Her parents were told that they couldn’t have kids and she was their miracle child, their angel. Your coworker Hugo? His mother loved the works of Victor Hugo and he was named after the author; he grew up to have a love for Hugo’s novels and secretly wants to be a writer himself. That boy in your son’s class who only goes by Junior? The paternal side of his family has a long tradition of sons named after their fathers with the sons called “Junior” and the fathers referred to as “Big Al.”
The same is true in literature. When I reviewed Anna James Watson’s Blackmail, I pointed out that “Tristan” and “Julian” both have roots in romantic literature. People best know “Tristan” for the Arthurian romance Tristan & Isolde, and “Julian” shares a root with one of the most famous female leads in tragic romance, Juliet.
Writers can use names to direct people’s views of a character or reveal a deeper meaning behind a narrative. J.K. Rowling is rather infamous for all the thought and creativity she puts into naming her characters.
At the same time, though, you have to be careful. Sometimes attempting to add meaning while naming characters can have unrealistic, and often bitterly humorous, results. No Potterhead will ever overcome the urge to laugh at “Scorpius Malfoy” and “Albus Severus Potter.” Watson’s Tristan has a surname that I can’t get over: “Masters.” Considering he’s a rich boy with a need to feel in charge at all times, it’s too on-the-nose for my taste.
You also have to remember that sometimes people have the names they have for no special reason, and the same can be true for naming characters as well.
I recently named a character “Angie.” I didn’t put any real thought into it, it just popped onto the page as I was typing. Then, for whatever reason, I couldn’t get myself to think of a more “meaningful” name. Something inside me said that it was just this character’s name, that’s it. And you know what? Sometimes naming characters happens that way.
Some character names are best when they have a special meaning, some are best when they don’t, and often you have to straddle the line, giving the names meaning without going overboard. The process can be quite the headache but, if handled correctly, it will raise your writing to the next level.
Writing is a very personal endeavor, changing from writer to writer and from story to story, so I would like to know other writers’ opinions on this matter. Please share your thoughts on and experience with naming characters in the comments below.