What’s in a Name?

So asks the heroine of Romeo and Juliet. Her new boyfriend’s name is hated by her family, whose own name is hated by his in turn. Names are an integral part of our identity, which Juliet acknowledges. Their families’ names define the feud, while their individual names have become symbolic of tragic forbidden love. As a writer, I have come to believe choosing the right name for a fictional character, or even a place, thing or title, makes a big difference.

Initially I paid little attention to those I chose and/or created for my novel. One beta reader who read early drafts said there was a “Gaelicness” to my story, which was what I wanted. Soon after I looked at the names more closely, and decided they didn’t reflect that feeling. With my characters, several felt too modern; a greater number didn’t feel like the kind I’d expect to find in a story set within an imaginary “Gaelic” world.

A few old ones have survived (and were moved around) as I felt they could still reflect that feeling. Nevertheless, most were changed. For my characters, the new names chosen were predominantly of Irish and Welsh origin, with a few Scottish and Celtic ones intermixed as well. At the same time I wanted to make sure most would be easy to pronounce. Several of the ones I looked at I knew might be hard to say. So for some I went with the Anglicized spelling. And every once in a while there is a “modern” name which originates from ancient history or myth. Places and things were given names created using actual Gaelic words with specific meanings. Like the book title, I won’t reveal any just yet. I have learned when you change them on beta readers, it causes confusion. Once they grow accustomed to a name, it sticks. And they could still change.

Genre I feel is a key factor to consider. Some I feel are stricter than others. Fantasy can be, often depending on the setting. Science-fiction in contrast, especially if futuristic, is very liberating. Historical fiction is perhaps the most strict. I recommend making sure most names are at least semi-common, if not known, in the chosen time period. For instance, I would be cautious giving a character in an 18th century setting a first name that didn’t come into use until the 19th century. Some stories, like mine, have names meant to reflect a theme or another aspect about them. Comedy and satire are others, where you will sometimes find “silly” names. William Goldman used that word to describe some he chose for characters in The Princess Bride.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against using uncommon names, nor creating either new names or new variants of existing ones. I created such a variant for one of my novel’s characters. A few more may certainly follow in the sequels. Sir Walter Scott and Oscar Wilde respectively gave us Cedric (derived from the Anglo-Saxon name Cerdic) and Dorian (possibly taken from an ancient Greek tribe, the Dorians) in Ivanhoe and The Picture of Dorian Gray. All I will say is, depending on the story you’re writing, be careful not to overuse them.

Even my novel’s main mythical species has variant spellings: griffin, griffon, and gryphon. The first, undoubtedly the most common, is also a surname (perhaps the most famous literary example being the title character of H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man) and occasional given name. The second is also used for certain dog breeds. I was introduced to the third in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I chose that spelling because it not only seemed the most fantasy-like to me, but some feel it is the one to use when portraying this creature as noble and intelligent, much like the one in Lewis Carroll’s novel.

Often names come down to the characters themselves. Any combination of a number of factors can have an influence (or be influenced), such as ethnic background, religion, social status, family traditions, nicknames, or a change of name (if so, why?). Perhaps there’s something about their personality or appearance you want to reflect, or the opposite. Many comic book superheroes’ alter egos have names that sound common, meant to not draw attention. But some are unique too. Some could be inside references. The classic film Halloween contains several, to both people and places.

In his book Your Screenplay Sucks!: 100 Ways to Make It Great, William M. Akers offers some helpful tips which I find very helpful and can be applied to all forms of fiction writing. He recommends varying up the beginning letter, ending rhyme, and letter length to lessen the likelihood of confusion.

It all seems a lot, and certainly can run the risk of being overthought. All those factors previously mentioned do not have to have influence, nor need to. Not every fictional character, place, or thing even needs to be named. In the end, we all have different tastes. We writers must choose names because we want them. But remember, these fictional creations are our children; the children of our mind. Those of mine whom I name, I want names which suit them.

Here are links to some websites I refer to when searching for character names (some of them are interlinked):

First names
  1. Behind the Name
  2. Think Baby Names
Last names
  1. Behind the Name: Surnames
  2. House of Names
  3. Scottish Penpals
  4. Surname Genealogy Search
  5. Surname Origin & Last Name Meanings at Ancestor Search
  6. Last Name Meanings & Origins at Ancestry.com
  7. How Popular is Your Last Name? at PBS
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5 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

    • Some of the names I’ve created and/or found might still be a little hard to say at first glance, but I am hoping for all of them it won’t be seriously difficult. I do plan on including a pronunciation guide, something I recommend for any writer who will be using more than a few names that might be hard to say.

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  1. Pingback: Building Worlds | Andrew McDowell

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