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What’s In A Name?
By Scott Nicholson

Shakespeare said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Gertrude Stein said, “A rose is a rose is a rose. “ John Davidson said, “O which is the last rose? A blossom of no name.” An adolescent Scott Nicholson once wrote a snarky line in a wretched poem that went “A rose is a rose is a risen.”

So we could assume we could name every character “Rose” and it would make no difference. Tokyo Rose would be the same as Emily Rose, and Rose Red and Rose Madder could be interchangeable titles in works by Stephen King. The character of “Rose” in the world’s most popular movie, “Titanic,” could have been “Sue,” and Johnny Cash’s song “A Boy Named Sue” could have been called “A Boy Named Rose” and theoretically the universe would have continued expanding intact. But naming a character “Rose” doesn’t connote blandness or homogeneity. The word comes loaded with a number of associations: a flower notoriously challenging for the home gardener; a pinkish-red color in the box of Crayolas; a food source rich in Vitamin C; Shakespeare’s quote; an oft-used symbol for the fleeting and ephemeral nature of love; and all the Roses you have personally known, as well as all the fictional Roses we encounter, whether the name is first or last.

Names do matter, and one of the quickest ways that fiction spoils itself is by having an unbelievable character. You don’t want the name to throw up a speed bump for the reader. The name should fit, go unnoticed and therefore easily accepted, or else be an intentional ploy to draw attention. These last can be tiresome: the big biker named “Tiny,” the pathetic loser called “Romeo,” etc. The name doesn’t have to do all of the work of character building, but it’s an important part of the package deal.

Uncommon names are fairly common, as evidenced by a quick thumbing through your local phone book. A thirty-second scan of mine reveals Rollin Weary, Edward Wax, Oletta Waycaster, Webb Weatherman, and Forest Weaver. These real names would probably cause your reader to pause upon initial encounter. This isn’t necessarily bad, but even real names can be loaded. If your fictional Edward Wax is a candle maker or your Webb Weatherman is a meteorologist, you’d better be writing comedy or satire.

One of the most common mistakes is making your character name sound too “namey.” In other words, the name sounds like that of a fictional character instead of a real person. For all my admiration of Dean Koontz, I feel his character names sometimes sound artificial, as if churned out by some “random character generator” (Jimmy Tock, Junior Cain, Aelfric Manheim, Martin Stillwater, Harry Lyon, Joanna Rand). However, he is the only writer skilled enough to name a serious character “Odd Thomas” and get away with it.

A fanciful name, even if memorable, can turn your readers away. My first encounter with Kurt Vonnegut was through his short story “Harrison Bergeron,” in which the “bad guy” is a woman named Diana Moon Glampers. I was a little too young to grasp the subtleties of Vonnegut’s satire, and the name annoyed me so much that I put off reading his work again for years. Now I understand what he was doing, and I still remember that name though I haven’t read the story since.

The sound of the name adds tone to the character. While a stone-faced character might well be called Stony, he’s probably more interesting if he’s a Chuck or Dirk, which are both punchy, “hard” names (Mystery Science Theater fans may remember “Biff McLargehuge”). A Richard is different from a Dick is different from a Richie is different from a Ricardo. Sue is not Suzannah, Suzie, or Susan. We expect an appliance repairman to be named Danny, not Danforth, or Fred instead of Frederick. An attorney or stockbroker will more likely be Charles than Charlie, or Lawrence instead of Larry. We’d probably be more comforted to have a doctor named Eleanor instead of Muffy, or an airline pilot named Virginia rather than Brittany. A character’s name is often the first and most vital clue to a character’s ethnicity, which may or may not be important to the story. Vinnie, Su, Ian, Darshan, Mohammed, Yoruba, Yasmine, and Felicia are probably going to create reader expectations. Names also carry generational weight: we envision Blanche and Vivian as older, more serious people than we do Dakota, Madison, or Mackenzie.

On the other hand, just as stereotypes are often full of holes in real life, you can use expectations in a delightful turn of the tables. Instead of a truck driver named Mac, he can be Milton, a sociologist who enjoys traveling. Your New York cabbie doesn’t have to be Armaan, who may or may not be a terrorist; he can be Orlando, studying acting in night school. Just make sure the people, and the motivations that propel them through the plot, are valid.

Villains are in their own special nominal class. Dracula is probably the perfect example. It’s practically impossible to pronounce without sinister implications. Freddie Krueger, Darth Vader, and Gollum are fraught with darkness. Stephen King shines at this: Leland Gaunt, Randall Flagg, George Stark (actually a pseudonym for writer Donald Westlake), Percy Wetmore, and probably the best one of all, “It.”

Of course, King also gets away with a character having the ubiquitous moniker “John Smith,” but even this name choice serves a purpose, because King’s protagonist in “The Dead Zone” is an everyman Christ figure. You probably don’t want to call your soul-stealing, heart-munching bad guy “Bradley Flowers,” though you might sneak that in as a mild-mannered, Walter Mitty-type serial killer. Real-life killers like Charles Starkweather and Richard Speck sound ominous, while other killers like Albert Fish and Ted Bundy sound like somebody’s kindly uncle, so your character names, like all other elements of your fiction, have to be more real than reality.

Female names offer their own opportunities for striking gold or striking out. “Thelma and Louise” are two names that, to me, conjure up images of rough, trailer-trash women (I have an aunt named Louise, so that obviously colors my association). In the movie, they become self-reliant while simultaneously depending on each other. Though they are doomed, they are also strong survivors. I don’t think it would have worked if the characters were “Cissie and Amber.” Save that for the Cameron Diaz and Reese Witherspoon road movie.

In the 1950’s James Bond world, you could get away with naming a character “Pussy Galore,” a lesbian who can be “cured” into heterosexuality by the right hired gun. That won’t work today, not even in genre fiction. Aside from the fact that the great majority of book purchasers are female, you don’t want to look stupid. Janet Evanovich’s cute, perky, yet often hapless bounty hunter is named Stephanie Plum, while Kathy Reich’s tougher and darker-edged forensic anthropologist is called Temperance (Tempe) Brennan. You can tell just by the protagonists’ names that the two series will have different tones.

A recent trend in genre novels is the name-dropping of other writers. This immediately pulls me out of the story, reminds me I am staring at the fabricated sentences of an actual human being, and I have to fight past the “Nudge, nudge, wink, wink” if I bother continuing at all. A manuscript I recently read had a pair of juvenile delinquents named “Anthony Bates” and “Norman Perkins.” As if this wasn’t painfully obvious enough, after the introduction the characters repeatedly refer to one another as Norm and Tony. I don’t think the association is worth the cost. If it’s plainly an homage or tribute, then it’s fine, but it’s already hard enough to keep the reader in a state of suspended disbelief. Save that kind of thing for the acknowledgements.

So where do you get names? You can turn to the phone book, but you’ll want to mix and match first and last names so you don’t inadvertently create a character that’s too close to home for some real person you’ve never met and who might be litigious. I once encountered a real person who had the same two names as one of my fictional characters, and it gave me pause. Using local surnames can add authenticity if your fiction is set in the area where you live. I often scour the obituaries because I use a lot of rural characters with long local lineages. “Baby name” books are great resources, especially if you have multicultural characters, though you won’t always find help with surnames. The Internet is an obvious and easy tool, and don’t forget your own imagination.

Once you decide on a name, you can always change it later, though having the name will help you start building the character in your mind. Whichever name you choose, sound it out, and make sure you want it in your story. See if it matches the character and his or her personality and, more importantly, actions. Especially if it’s the protagonist, choose a name that can hold up for an entire story, book, or even a series.

While the name you bestow on your character may not be as important as the name you give your child, in some ways your fiction is just as much an offspring of your life as is your genetic contribution. Take it seriously, and make it matter.



(Scott Nicholson is author of six novels, three screenplays, and numerous articles, short stories and songs. He runs a freelance editing service at
www.hauntedcomputer.com/editing.htm , which includes a free five-page sample. He is a member of the International Thriller Writers, Mystery Writers of America and Horror Writers Association.)

 



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