Monday, May 3, 2010

What’s in a Name?

© Michael R. Stevens 2010 all rights reserved

There was a time in my writing career when names were very difficult for me. I would get stuck on a sentence for hours because it contained a reference to an as-yet-unnamed character. Nothing would come to mind in those situations, and the writing session would end with no work accomplished. Today, I don’t have that problem, and I actually enjoy the naming process. In this post, I’ll share my approach.

Most fundamentally, I think my naming process benefited from the discipline that comes from working in an ad agency for quite a few years. In a good ad, whether it’s an Internet banner or a TV commercial or the back cover of the New Yorker, every aspect of the imagery is crafted to “say” something. So, for example, if you’re selling a product for upscale consumers and the image portrays two women in a cafe, you dress the models and choose all the props to “say” upscale.

One day, I realized the obvious connection to names in fiction: I should pick names that “say” something about the character. And they always do, intentionally or not.

For starters, they tie a character to an ethnicity and region: white bread American, Italian, Jewish, from the South, African American, Middle Eastern, Asian, and so on. Names can “say” this, either loudly (“Ricky-Bobby,” the hero of the movie TALLADEGA NIGHTS) or softly (“Paola,” the heroine in my new high tech thriller, FORTUNA. It’s important for the plot to know she’s Italian).

Parents. Both outlandish and common names say something about a character’s parents, as do Biblical names, movie stars’ names and the names of historical personages. If both parents are college professors, they are not likely to name their daughter Sade. So, If I give a character that name, it makes a comment about her socio-economic status.

Age. Each generation has its own set of unique names, mixed in with others that span multiple generations. You can immediately know that Kylie and Tyler are a lot younger than Maude and Walter, while Moonbeam, with her hippie parents, is somewhere in the middle. Michael and Elizabeth could fit in anywhere.

Taking these factors into account puts parameters around the search for the right name – a big help, at least for me.

In addition, my characters’ names are often symbolic. I love names that mean something, but I confess I’m not always sure the ones I choose are over the top, or (as I hope) simply glance off the reader’s mind, leaving a subliminal impression.

In FORTUNA, my hero chases after a sorority queen he can never hope to win over. Her name: Laura Pride. It’s a plausible name, but perhaps too obvious. His name, Jason, is a reference to the hero of Greek mythology who must find his way through the labyrinth to find the golden fleece. In this case, even though the Jason in my book must find his way through a labyrinth of computer code to discover the secret of his father’s death, I don’t think one reader in ten thousand will make a connection with the mythical Jason. And the name he takes when he gets involved in the online role-playing game that gives the book its title, Allesandro da Scala (Allesandro “of the ladder”).... Well, it reminds me of the social climbing that is his central character flaw, but I doubt that readers will see that, even if they speak Italian.

In that case, why bother? Why not pick names that just sound good? The answer is, using symbolic references helps me get to the right name. And sometimes, a name can be of crucial importance, as it is in FORTUNA when... but then, I don’t want to spoil the plot for you.

About the author:
Michael Stevens has worked as a writer all his life, starting as the music columnist for his hometown newspaper when he was in high school. He owned a successful high tech advertising agency in Silicon Valley for many years, and now freelances from his home office, mostly for very large companies with a global presence. He is a serious amateur musician and has produced four CDs.
Web site:


Joylene Nowell Butler said...

You're so right, Michael. I too find naming my characters the hardest part. What's so pleasing is once they're named, they start to become real. Like meeting an interesting person at a gathering and learning their name so you can immediately conjure up thoughts about who they might be. And the more you imagine, the more interested you become.

s.w. vaughn said...

That's a great point about considering a character's parents when choosing a name. Thank you!

(P.S. I wonder if it means anything that my word verification is - I'm not kidding - psycho?)

Marta Stephens said...

Another interesting thought:

"For starters, they tie a character to an ethnicity and region: white bread American, Italian, Jewish, from the South, African American, Middle Eastern, Asian, and so on."

Many thanks for sharing!

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Hi, Michael. I wonder how much of our character naming is subconscious, too? When I named Gus LeGarde, I wanted a French-Canadian name that sounded good. But I never realized that it actually fit his character, too. A friend pointed out that he "guards" the innocent and stands up for what's right - he assumed I named him LeGarde with that in mind.

Thanks for a great article, hope to see you here again!