How I Name My Characters, Part Two: Character Names That Don’t Sound Like Character Names

In the first part, I talked about where names get their associations. Next time I’m going to talk about various ways to use those associations to enhance a story. But first, I wanted to share advice on making sure those names don’t sound so literary that they distract readers from the story. An arbitrary name isn’t nearly as fun or evocative as one that really suits a character, but one that fits too well draws attention to the fact that a writer constructed this world.

Beware of Tropes

As I mentioned in the last post, names are multifaceted, and characters are multifaceted. It often works very well to give your characters a name that matches up with some, but not all, of who they are. There are many directions you can take this, but the absolute worst is to name a character for the trope they best fulfill. Nothing screams “this is a story” like naming everyone for where they fit into the narrative.

There are three exceptions to the avoiding tropes rule; one-scene characters who will exist just long enough to need a name but then disappear from the story, stories with a comic, self-aware tone, and characters who initially fit a trope but then subvert those expectations. Jane the Virgin uses both of the last two criteria. Her love triangle is between Michael, the stable boyfriend of two years, and Rafael, the rich playboy who broke her heart. Except, as the series goes on, Michael gets increasingly hard to trust, and Rafael seems more genuine and pure in his intentions. This role reversal combined with the loving-parody-of-a-telenovela vibe makes the names perfect.

And if I’m totally off base, I’m only halfway through season one, so don’t tell me, okay?

Don’t. Tell. Me.

But that said, there’s a difference between an homage and a replay. Several years ago the film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow got my hopes up. It promised to be tribute to classic 1940s adventure stories, and it was. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really anything else. It was a restitched series of familiar tropes and twists; it had no heart of it’s own. The names they chose had the same problem. Joe Sullivan, Polly Perkins, Dex, Totenkopf. Which of those is  the reporter girlfriend, the heroic pilot, the villain, the sidekick?

Yup. You got it.

Don’t do that. Write characters, and name them for who they are as people, not who they are as pieces on the chess board.

Be Aware of the In-Story Reason

I loved Juno, both the film and the character. But I must admit, it always irked me that she had such a conveniently quirky name, to go with her character. We didn’t get to know her parents very well, but they didn’t seem like the type of people to pick a name like Juno. They seemed like the sorts to name their girl Hailey or Kimberly. The quirky name for a quirky protagonist thing worked a lot better in Easy A, where Olive’s parents are named Rosemary and Dill, and it’s quickly established that the only thing they like more than a joke is a running joke (her little brother’s name is Chip).

Names say things about the person who picked them. They reflect hopes, expectations, values and personal tastes. When a character’s name doesn’t sound like the kind of thing their parent (or other namer) would have chosen, it points back to the author.

If your heart is set on a type of name that your character’s in-story namer would not have chosen, there are no shortages of ways out. In both fiction and real life, people change or adjust their names all the times. Whether they choose an appropriate nickname, like Jo from Little Women, or they are given a name that reflects how others see them, like Fat Charlie in Anansi Boys, or whether there’s a subtle consensus to reshape the name into something more appropriate, like Pepper from Good Omens, it’s a perfect way to make an on the nose name sound natural. It feels right because it happens fairly often in real life, as well. Names shape people’s expectations, and when those expectations don’t fit, their bearers often seek something more appropriate.

Vary Why They Fit

As I mentioned last time, names are multifaceted, and characters are multifaceted, and names can fit in ways that are unexpected. A perfect way to make names feel appropriate without being contrived is to have them fit different characters for different reasons.

One of my all-time favorite shows didn’t do well with this; Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy, Cordelia, Willow, Xander… each name fits perfectly, on an individual level. But they all line up with their namesake’s personalities so well that, collectively, it’s clear they have been named by some omniscient author. Especially when the British librarian introduces himself as Giles. Later on, as characters evolved and others were introduced, this problem gradually went away.

On the other hand, How I Met Your Mother got this right from the start. First, three characters have names that fit, both on the level of sound and meaning.

  • Ted, the old fashioned romantic nerd. It conjures up images of your old, safe stuffed bear, and that’s the kind of lover he tries to be; the kind who makes you dinner and always returns your calls right away. As a diminutive, it also indicates that he has some growing up to do before he’s ready for The One.
  • Marshall, the gentle giant. Its soft sounds give Ted a serious challenge for most huggable name contest. At the same time, the law enforcement gives it a little backbone, and he does have a surprisingly tough and mature side, when needed.
  • Robin, the mercurial beauty. She is feminine, but with an androgynous streak, and like her namesake bird she sometimes needs to fly away.

But then you have Barney and Lily. A lily is a delicate flower, commonly used as a symbol of purity. Barney conjures up either a hay chewing hick or a purple dinosaur. Lily’s personality is half den mother, half scrappy hellion. Barney is a smooth city player.

These two names that break the pattern have an effect of naturalizing the entire cast. What coincidental appropriateness? Clearly we are just five people, named by five sets of people who had no idea how we would turn out. And sure, some of us did end up like our names, and that happens. Nature and nurture and all that. But sometimes you get a wild card, and look at us. Wild cards. Totally didn’t end up anything like our parents thought. Nope, our names and our personalities have as little to do with each other as you can imagine.

It’s a big lie, by the way. Barney and Lily’s names still signal something; they signal it by contrast, rather than emphasis. But I’ll get into that in the next installment.

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