What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)
When I was born, my parents were going to name me Megan, but as luck would have it three other babies in the hospital were also named Megan. So my parents decided to give me one of the most uncommon names ever, at least in this country. Liesl. I like my name. I think it fits me and sets me apart in some way, but sometimes I wonder…would a Liesl by any other name be as…Liesl?
Anne of Green Gables said, “A rose just couldn’t smell as sweet if it were called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.” And part of me really believes this. Names hold meaning, connotations, history, personality, and emotion.
Names are not the most important thing in the world when it comes to writing but I do think a name should resonate the personality of the character or the tone of the book, or the world, etc. What do you think when you hear these names? Melissa. Ricardo. Jacob. Vincent. Ethel. Maybe you know people with these names. Maybe you imagine what a person with that name would be like, their age, ethnicity, bad habits. How about Chicago, Brazil, Little Rock, Paris, Utah? Do images, ideas or feelings readily swim to your mind? They do for me. Some of these places I’ve been to, some I’ve lived in, some I’ve only heard or read about or seen them in movies, but they all have connotations. And the names seem to embody the essence of those places.
But in speculative fiction we have a burden. The histories and cultures are not ingrained in us or readily apparent and the author can not (or should not) rattle off a lifetime of culture and historical facts to “place” their reader. In order to keep a good pace and the interest of the reader, the writer has to “slip” information into the plot here and there. Small things that give us clues, that place us in the world. (Or they can write a lengthy prologue.)
One thing that really places me as a reader is names. A good resonant name can carry a history, a personality, a character flaw, a strength, even an image. Some names in speculative fiction which I think are resonant are Katniss Everdeen, Severus Snape, Ender, Katar, Ronald Weasley, Hogwarts, (okay, just about every name in Harry Potter,) Narnia, and Sauron.
As for my own work, sometimes the names comes easily. It feels right and embodies everything I feel and envision for that character or place. Other times I really struggle. I’ll brainstorm and search for names in various ways. I use a baby name database which can be very helpful. For both people and places sometimes I take two or three names, split them up and combine them in different ways. Sometimes the soul of a character does not become apparent to me until I start putting them on the page. All I know is the role they play in the story, so I give them a working name and when their true nature starts to take form I may find a different name for them. Then I use the find and replace all tool. Word processing is awesome.
Does every name have to be original or even “resonant?” I don’t think so. If an entire book is filled with extravagant, made-up names it can get a little tiresome. A familiar name here and there, or simple names brings balance. It’s also fun to use names that you might think are completely wrong for your character and the story only to find that they add a new dimension that you would not have discovered otherwise.
After all that I have come to the conclusion that a Liesl by any other name would not be Liesl. I would not have grown up being call “Liesl Diesel” or “Liesl the Weasal.” I wouldn’t have to spell it or explain it all the time. I wouldn’t love the Sound of Music so much. I would have been called other nicknames and I would have had other issues with my name. I would have been another name.
Names matter. Names are what set us apart from others. They are the very beginning of our identity and so they should be for our characters as well.
What about you? What are your favorite names in fiction? Least favorite? Tricks to naming things?