Monday, April 12, 2010

What's In A Name?

According to Juliet Capulet, "[w]hat's in a name? that which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet;/So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,/Retain that dear perfection which he owes/Without that title."

While her wisdom might be timeless, I must disagree here. To me, names all have some inherent connotation to them which colors how I perceive the character. If Romeo were instead named Percival, he would not--to me--be the same man. Biased, maybe, yet true.

As writers, we have an endless supply of names for our characters. We must take into consideration the way first and last names flow together, possible nicknames for our characters, and how each name would implicitly characterize this figure. When filling out the elements of a character, his or her name is essential.

Maybe because I love writing alpha males this is more important, as some names just sound stronger than others, but I am very picky about certain names for heroes. This DOES NOT apply to real life, but as our heroes are essentially real men, but better, I hold them to a higher standard. For example: "Richard" is unappealing as a hero because the nickname there is "Dick." I find it much more appropriate for the villain or male obstacle of the piece. "Harry" is another I'm not fond of, mostly for its visual connotation.

Unfortunately, I have stumbled across a small handful of books whose heroes, though incredibly heroic and well-characterized, I just could not root for. I didn't like them as much as others equally worthy because their name did not scream "hero." Even beta males as heroes deserve strong, or at least interesting, names. But because names and personal identity are so important to modern society (I point to the monogramming and personalization crazes as proof) its positive and negative impressions must be considered. Below I have borrowed names from "Lord of the Flies" for illustrative purposes.

Jack: the hard consonance and its brevity lend the name to a strong, stoic leader-type hero. It is a simple name, not short for anything, nor does it have a commonly used nickname. Such a man would be equally strong but elemental.

Simon: This rings as an intellectual name, which in itself is sexy and powerful. Smart men are some of my favorite heroes. Simon is probably more of a beta male, but no less heroic for it. Like Jack, it is not a diminutive, nor is it often given a nickname.

Ralph: While this seems like a solid alpha-male name, it evokes the idea of vomit. Also, unlike "Jack," which has a pleasing hard "k," the "f" sound of Ralph just isn't as hero-worthy. Don't ask me why, I haven't figured that out yet.

Eric/Erik: This name is appealing in its dual spellings. "Eric" is more of an all-American good ol' boy who surfs and has those sea-blue eyes framed by windswept blond hair. "Erik," on the other hand, is familiar, yet foreign and exotic. He would have dark hair to contrast those seemingly-innocent blue eyes, and maybe a tinge of Eastern European accent to make his sweet nothings even sexier.

I've been told that I'm too sensitive to what others say are non-existent connotations, but what do you think? Is this naming business b.s., or would a rose really smell as sweet if it were called something unpleasant-sounding like "yeasty" or "hymen"? And on that note, what is your most and least favorite word to hear?

p.s. my fave is lush


Debra St. John said...

Oooh, names are tricky. I spend a lot of time on baby-naming web-sites when I'm stuck as to what to name a character.

A name does matter. I had a suggestion once to change the name of a minor character in one of my books (It sounded too similiar to another character), but I couldn't do it. Zach was Zach. He had a life. A story of his own. A history, even though it wasn't part of the story. I couldn't just call him Bob (or whatever) after knowing him so well. So Zach he remained. (And now he has his own story.)

Erin Nicholas said...

Good post, Skylar! Names are huge for me as a reader and a writer. I will spend days, literally, trying to find the right names for characters. I have to know my characters before I can really write and I have to have the names right before I can get to know them. They have to go with the last name, can't be too much like another character, have to have the "right" personality... etc. In fact, I've started writing books with one name only to change it after a scene or two because I finally found the right one! :) And what a relief it is! I'm sure I over-think it but, that's the way it is for me. I've stopped trying to fight it :)

My favorite word: chocolate. For all the many, many lovely things it means to me *G* (just kidding... one of my favorite words is lackadaisical--love how it looks, the pronunciation, what it means...)


Meg Benjamin said...

Oh yeah, I've had the experience of having to change a hero's name, and it wasn't pleasant! A contest judge (back in my pre-pubbed days) told me the name "Harry" belonged to Harry Potter exclusively. Now, I'd probably blow her off, but then I was so nervous about doing the wrong thing that I did a global search/replace. But in my heart, the guy was still Harry, believe me.

Kelly Jamieson said...

Oh yes names are so important! I spend a lot of time picking the perfect names for not only my heroes but heroines. Not only do they have to suit the characters, they have to work together. You can't have a couple named Ryan and Riley, or Caleb and Kaley, or Julian and Jillian.

Skylar Kade said...

Debra -- this is something I definitely forgot, that names can take on a life of their own. This relates to what Erin and Meg said: sometimes the character is so intertwined with his or her name that to change it either improves or diminishes how you view him/her.

Erin, I'm the same way. I cannot throw myself into a work until the names are perfect. I'll be thinking about something mundane and totally not writing-related when the perfect name pops into my heads. Also, lackadaisical is a great word; its going on my best-of list!

Kelly, you're so right! If the hero/heroines names do not mesh well... then you could end up with Julia Guilia, and anyone who's seen 'The Wedding Singer' knows that ends badly :)

PG Forte said...

I used to be a lot more picky with names. A gazillion characters later (only a small exaggeration) and I've gotten pretty lackadaisical about the whole thing. lol!

I don't like repeating myself, but I already have doubled up with some minor characters and, at some point, I'm probably going to end up with two or more main characters sharing the same first name. I think it's inevitable.

I know I don't spend nearly as much time thinking about names as used to. As long as I'm satisfied with the name, that's all that matters because there's always going to be someone out there whose feelings about a particular name isn't going to mesh with mine and I've given up on trying to please everyone. :)

Favorite word: that's something that's constantly changing. And it's not always English. Seems like I "discover" a new favorite word with every book I write--which I then have to force myself not to overuse. Argh.