“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” This famous quote by long-revered poet and playwright William Shakespeare means simply that what matters most is what something is rather than what it is named. While it is a noble sentiment, I find it nonetheless inaccurate. After all, Shakespeare’s character Juliet spouts this particular piece of philosophy when she is referring to her lover Romeo—a member of the Montague family. Romeo is, by virtue of his family’s name, a sworn enemy of hers. Romeo’s name is not just important; it is, in fact, integral to the plot of the story. And so I come to the point of my post: the paramount importance of character names.
When I write stories, the characters driving those stories are not cemented in my head as living beings until I have correctly named them. Likewise I usually do not progress in writing a story until it has its proper title. You might ask why I am so picky about names. The answer is because I believe that a person’s name offers a little peek into that being’s soul. It is the meaning of the name and the spelling of a name that helps me understand who a character is, what motivates him, and how he is likely to react to certain situations.
It is important to me that each character’s name is at least based on a real name if it isn’t actually a real name. In some cases, I will take a character name that is a combination of two or more real names. Of course, the name’s meaning is not the character’s total description. Instead name acts as a faint blueprint that allows me to fill in certain details about that character. I usually use the meanings of names to describe one of four things about a character: personality, physical appearance, history, or occupation.
A good example of a name describing a character’s personality is that of Katja. Katja is my main character from the Metamorphosis Cycle book series. Her name means “pure” or “pure of heart”, which fits her character very well. She strives to be very pure in her intentions and actions. She might not always succeed, but she does try to do what is right no matter the circumstances. Thus, it is Katja’s purity of heart that ultimately helps her through some very difficult decisions.
Other characters of mine have combination names. Dayalan is one such example from the Metamorphosis Cycle book series. Dayalan’s name is actually a combination of three: Dayal, Daylan, and Alan. The name Dayal means “compassionate or kind” while Daylan is the rhyming variant of Waylon, an English name for a historical blacksmith said to be blessed with supernatural powers. Alan means “fair or handsome”. In the book Skinshifter, I describe Dayalan as being “as pale as the snow swirling outside and unbelievably beautiful—like an alabaster visage of an elf prince. He had broad shoulders and sleek waist-long hair swept back from his oval face and pointed ears. His hair was as dark as a moonless night, yet his eyes were as pale blue as sea ice.” Clearly Dayalan lives up to the Alan part of his name at first impression. Later in the book, readers can judge how well he lives up to the other two name definitions.
Yet another character introduced in the Metamorphosis Cycle’s first book Skinshifter is Felan. Felan’s name means “small wolf”, which readers might find ironic because Felan is not small at all. He is actually a werewolf who stands about 6’9” tall when in his normal form. The reason I chose this name is because of the character’s history. Felan was actually born two months premature. He was so small and sickly as a pup that his parents honestly did not expect him to survive. It is to Felan’s credit and that he did survive and grow up. His relentless determination to overcome his disabilities is what shapes him into the powerful warrior that he is when Katja and the rest of the packmates meet him. Felan might not be small any more, but he understands what it is like to be helpless. It is this understanding that helps him to show gentleness toward others despite his intimidating size and strength.
As we see in Shakespeare’s work, characters’ surnames and last names can sometimes be even more important than their first. More than any other name, the last name can really help define a character’s history. Smith, for example, is one of the most common surnames in the English-speaking world. The reason why is simple: Smith is a common last name because being a smithy was a common trade. Every town had to have a blacksmith. Influential merchant cities needed several blacksmiths, a few silversmiths, and perhaps a few goldsmiths. In olden days, a common trade such as blacksmithing or milling was usually passed down from father to son and, therefore, so was the name. Over time surnames have lost much of their meaning, but they are nonetheless important to a character’s mentality. How differently do you expect a character to act if her last name is Walton or Vanderbilt than if her last name is Smith?
Whether you wish to use a single name or a combination name to describe your character, please make sure that it fits with some unique aspect of that character. The last thing you want to do as a writer is give a trash-talking assassin the name of Fred (the nickname for Frederick, the German name for “peace”), unless the history of the character somehow warrants the irony.
I prefer to use baby name search engines and internet data bases such as the one on Parenthood.com to find my character names. There are also numerous baby name books out on the market. Whatever your preferred search method, I do think it is a good idea to double-check your name meanings’ accuracy in multiple sources.
Do you have any questions or comments about character names? If so, please post them! I would love to read your thoughts.
The Seared Cookie Report: one Artist/Writer’s Labored Soliloquy (SCRAWLS) is brought to you from the desk of Alycia Christine Sears and/or Alycia C. Cooke with love and virtual baked goods for all. Please let me know your thoughts on this particular topic and, as always, if there is any subject you wish me to discuss, contact me. Thanks!