So, if names that fit too well distract readers, why even try to match names to characters? One reason is that a good name can enhance a story beautifully. Making good art isn’t about avoiding risks. It’s about taking risks, and learning which ones pay off. While a bad name can be ungainly, and weigh a story down, a good name can accentuate a story’s strongest aspects. And that doesn’t just apply to characterization, though that’s certainly a good place to start.
The first impulse, when naming a character, is to find something that goes with their personalities. That’s not a bad impulse. Some of the most memorable characters have names that neatly match their most noteworthy traits. Scarlett O’Hara, for example. The color red in nature either signals something highly alluring, or extremely dangerous. The shade we call scarlet is especially intense, yet sophisticated, all of which sum up the power of Scarlett’s character.
What some writers don’t realize, however, is that a name that contrasts with a character can be just as effective. Consider John le Carre’s most famous protagonist, George Smiley. He’s not smiley. He’s not even slightly happy. In fact, he’s fairly morose. But the the interesting thing about him is how well he keeps it under the surface. He has no shortage of reasons to be actively, dramatically depressed, but he isn’t. He minds his own business, does his duty, ignores the various jabs people send his way, and, when life gets the better of him, lets it out with quintessentially British subtlety. The name Smiley draws attention to the depths below his facade. The problem with subtle, even keeled characters is that they can feel like an uninspired author’s default, rather than a character’s honest choice. Smiley’s name helps him avoid this fate, by drawing attention to what he is not.
Contrasting names are different from arbitrary names. Near and far are opposites, because they both exist on a spectrum of distance. Neither is the opposite of green or apple. In the last post, I talked about How I Met Your Mother has Lily, a feisty mother bear whose namesake flower normally symbolizes gentleness and purity, and, Barney, a suave player with the least suave name imaginable. It wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable to name them Jill and Aaron.
I think it’s also worth noting that a fitting name can feel generic when it corresponds to a trait the character shares with nearly everyone. One character on 30 Rock is named Frank. Frank arguably fits his name; he always speaks his mind. But so does everybody else. The cast has a nice pile of entertaining quirks and flaws between them. Bashfulness isn’t one of them.
I’ve already mentioned in both previous posts that you should choose a name that fits the setting. Every society has naming conventions. When you’re writing in a real world setting, a little research into these adds authenticity, especially if you’re willing to use names that are decidedly unfashionable nowadays, as they do on Downton Abbey. When your setting is invented, it’s a good idea to come up with a few rules for names, as well as guidelines for how class, gender, occupation or ethnicity tends to affect people’s choices. It enlivens your worldbuilding and can also communicate the values of your culture. The Hunger Games, Battlestar Galactica and Lord of the Rings all do this very well.
Because who we are is often shaped by our environment, this is a great place to go for names, in order to avoid excess of names that sound too much like the namesake. It can also be a quick way to communicate conflicts between cultures, or between an individual and their culture.
- The scene where Finn is named in The Force Awakens, establishes the difference between the First Order, which sees people as tools, and Poe Dameron, who refuses to dehumanize Finn with a serial code.
- The book Good Omens (which everyone should read) has, among other things, a Satanic nun mistaking an ordinary Englishman for an ambassador, and giving him the Antichrist to raise. She attempts to convince him to give the baby a traditional name, like Damien or Wormwood. He goes with Adam.
- Even a subtle change can speak volumes about a character, as in Anne of Green Gables, where she insists that if she must have a name as plain as Anne, it absolutely must be spelled with an e.
But when a name completely breaks from established rules, it can be jarring. In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup explains that it’s tradition on their village to give babies undesirable names (this is based on a real tradition in many cultures; exact explanations vary, but it’s sort of like telling actors to break a leg). If a character isn’t named for some bodily function or piece of refuse, it’s something that sounds just as bad, like Stoick, Hoark or Phlegma. Then, there’s Astrid. It’s not a word, it doesn’t sound gross, and it literally means “beautiful goddess.” Every time someone said her name, it reminded me that this isn’t a real place, but a human invention whose creators can ignore the rules at their convenience. Either that, or her parents hated her.
It also weakened the character. Astrid is great, and I loved her, but there is an obvious reason why they didn’t follow the rules. She’s the love interest, and they didn’t want to disrupt her beautiful image with an ugly name. Her name is a signal that, because she’s the pretty girl, she could be badass, but they weren’t going to let her be injured or dirty her up. It was more important to preserve her desirable image than make her someone who organically fit the world. I think they should have gotten over that. They could have come up with something that sounds beautiful, but fits the established rules of the setting, like Bramblethorn or Stormcloud. Or they could have just embraced the comedy gold of having Hiccup breathlessly talk about the most beautiful girl in the village; Crabgrass.
Here we get into tricky territory. As I explained in the last post, naming characters for which tropes they fit in the narrative just draws the audience’s attention to cliches, not originality. Foreshadowing in names can also be hard to do with real subtlety. Nobody was surprised that Remus Lupin was a werewolf. But, as I said, writing is sometimes about taking risks.
I just finished reading Warm Bodies, and I loved it. If you look closely, several characters have names that reference Romeo and Juliet; not just R for Romeo and Julie for Juliet, but also M for Mercutio and Perry for Paris. These names work because they are buried. They make sense in-story, they are surrounded by names that don’t reference Shakespeare, and the plot is willing to break the formula just often enough that the parallels aren’t dead giveaways. I knew the hints were there, but I was so swept up in the story I forgot about them until I closed the book. It was perfect.
Misleading audiences is also perfectly good use of a name. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho relies on twists, and those twists are still emotionally effective when you know what’s coming, because of how much he commits, on every level, to luring you into a false sense of security. This goes all the way down to Norman Bates. Look at that. He is practically named “normal man.” Bastard.
These two techniques can also be used to play off of each other. In the original Star Wars series, we first meet Han Solo… who always travels with a partner, and comes back to help the rebels in the end. Solo is the image he tries to project, but the man inside is more complicated than that. This red herring created a smokescreen over other hints; the alliteration of Luke and Leia, or the fact that Vader is Dutch for father.
This is a the hardest one to use well. Most of the time the only authors who even try are attempting to make a painfully obvious allegory, as in Pilgrim’s Progress. And hey, if allegory is your dream, there’s a market for that. You do you, more power to you, etc etc.
That said, I can think of two cases where a writer pulled thematic names off. First is Hope, from the series Jessica Jones. I don’t even know how to explain this one without spoiling the entire show. All I can say is that she absolutely symbolizes Hope, but the writers were willing to do things with the idea of hope that I’ve never seen before. Second is Calvin and Hobbes. Yes, the comic strip. Both protagonists were named for philosophers who had a cynical view of human nature. John Calvin came at it from a religious perspective, and Thomas Hobbes from a political one. In between skipping school and making killer mutant snow goons, Calvin and Hobbes spend a lot of time walking through the woods, talking about human nature and everything we as a species just can’t get right. Two things make the references work. First, it’s not like the strip is named Plato and Nietszche. The references are a bit obscure and the names sound like real names. Second, Calvin and Hobbes aren’t parroting their namesakes. At most, they are interested in similar questions. They are their own people, having their own conversations, and instead of lecturing us they are being bewildered along with us.
The worst thematic name I could think of was Veil from The Outcast of Redwall. Redwall is a series of animal novels that I loved as a kid, but their biggest weakness, in my recollection, was the simplistic species based morality. Mice, moles, otters, badgers and hares were always good. Rats, stoats, ferrets and foxes were always bad. In The Outcast of Redwall, a ferret, is raised by the good creatures of Redwall. The book keeps acting as if it’s about to discuss nature vs. nurture, but then slams the door on the question with some pointless act of cruelty. His name is an early example of this simplistic approach. Supposedly, his name is Veil because there’s a veil over his past and his future, but early on somebody points out that veil is an anagram of both evil and vile. Oh dear, what an omen! The author never really wanted to examine the question of morality and upbringing, and the name just draws attention to that.
You can think of words in a story existing on a spectrum, from the little words that usher the readers along without calling attention to themselves (the, said, it, come, was) to the ones that pop out and define the story. On this spectrum, the words that call the most attention to themselves will be the names. Audiences will actually put in work to remember your character’s names, so they can keep track of the people driving the narrative. It’s worthwhile to put some thought into them.