Friday, November 18, 2011

What's in a Name?

How important is your character's name to you? Truly. Now think about it for a second. If you stripped away "Cora Lesley" from Cora Lesley, would you have the same girl? Or how about Dill Vervain Octavius Seasoning? Could he exist in the same form if he was named *shudder* Thomas Johnson?
Think of the people you know, and try to rechristen them. It just doesn't work, does it? It would seem their whole personality, as you know it, would change in an instant. I recently watched Sherwood Pictures' newest film, Courageous. While enjoying the film very much, I left the theater unable to recall the name of a single character...well, except Whats-his-name. :P It was perplexing for me, because though the characters were strong and I could talk about them per their personalities, the names simply did not fit. They were not memorable enough to stick with me past tossing the popcorn carton in the trash. And it has bothered me ever since.
When we, as "creators" of characters, give them a name, we are giving them half of their personality. Half of what makes them different from every other character in the wide wide world of literature. A name is a double-edged sword. It immediately sets one apart from the mass of people, and lets on a little bit of the characters personality. Charles Dickens was a master of choosing names that reflected, in some way, the person himself. Think of the host of characters peopling his novels:
Miss Betsey Trotwood-one immediately pictures a bustling, officious, stiff, but goodhearted woman.
Ham Peggoty--without a vestige more of thought that I would usually give line in a book, I knew Ham Peggoty was a bluff, honest, likeable young man with a country air about him.
Abel Magwitch--I don't know about you, but this is a convict's name and nothing else.
Estella Havisham--Cold, starlike, beautiful, unattainable--the name says it all.
Philip Pirrip, or Pip--I love the name Pip. A boy named Pip simply could not be all that bad. :)
I could go on, but I trust you get the point. The naming of a character, like the naming of a ship or the christening of a child, is a bit of eternity at the tip of your pen. (Relatively, in the case of the ship and the character) Make it worth your while. While I do not advocate excessively strange names, even in fantasy/sci-fi stories, or wild spellings like Kiylea (for Kylie), I like to make my names work for me. I am not a touting myself as a mistress of all naming ceremonies by any means, but I am patient with naming my characters. If a name does not fit, my character might be nameless for a scene or two. I try different names on my people, and if by the morning I am having trouble recalling what it was I named the character, I know it isn't right for them.
Here are some of the names in my tales:
Dharma--an Indian merchant and friend of the Seasoning children
Sali--cross, stout, Indian cook, sometime friend of the Seasoning children
Basil Andrew Cyrus Seasoning--he, and his siblings, rattle their four-digit names off like a catechism, but they give them distinguishment.
Miss Lily Piccalo--lovely, airy, rich, and sweet young lady who might have been the perfect mother, were it not for Dill's...ahem...Lies about certain family members.
Tuck and Dot Williams--Properly Tucker and Dorothy, this brother and sister duo are the essence of adorable childhood. Tuck gives one the idea of rather a Huckleberry Finn character, slightly tamed, and Dot is the perfect word to describe a baby so round and plump and rosy.
Flounder, Ann Company-- I have written her such to better show her name, spun up by her eccentric, Dickensian father. The name immediately sets this lass up to be a wild-card.
Gardenia O'Talley--Superfluous in everything, but especially her airs of Propriety, the O'Talley is stiff as starch, self-important, and no fun at all.
Nan Thrushwood--This name grew onto the character as naturally a morning glory twines up a trellis. It completes the picture of the plump, rosy, robin-like crofter's daughter who flies into the wintry darkness of Delgrade Heath and turns life upside down.
Cyril Delgrade--A cold, heartless, withdrawn name that perfectly fits the master of Delgrade Heath...that is, until... :)

See? Anyway, what are some of your characters' names? Are names important to you, or is it just a queer fancy of mine that the proper handle on a thing gives you a tighter grip? I challenge you to take a second look at your names and make sure they are working for you, not painting a picture of blandness over a sparkling personality. :) ~Rachel


Marian said...

Great post! I love "Basil Andrew Cyrus Seasoning", by the way. :) I think names are very important both to the author and the reader. I like names that are fun to say, mean something that I associate with the character, and/or create an effect. One of my characters' names is "September", which looks similar to "Sebastian", the main character; but the two characters are complete contrasts. The similar names kind of highlight the contrast. :)

Anonymous said...

Oh, Rachel, I very much agree with you. And your names are simply splendid.

Maria said...

Oh yes-yes-yes. I always chose a characters's name before their personality comes out. The MC of my current novel is Anna, and she really couldn't have been anything else.

Recently I was reading aloud a book I used to love to my little sister and I got so confused just a few pages through, because the quiet, smart, dark haired by was named Frans, and his mischeivous brother was called Dirk. It confused me so much because I was absolutely certain that the quiet older brother HAD to be called Dirk.

~Maria Elisabeth

Carilyn said...

I agree that names are important too! Your list of Dickens characters made me think of Mr. Headstone (Our Mutual Friend). I don't really remember his first name, but his last name, Headstone, fit him perfectly! He was cold hearted, and had a terrible lack of self-control. And, what better place to propose to the woman of your dreams than a cemetery?! HaHa! =D

Ah, for my characters names. Here's a sampling:

-Rian Findlay, an Irish father who plays the fiddle. Is generally good to get along with. (I still need to work on getting his accent implied in there.)

-Jane Watcher, somewhat shy and timid around people she doesn't know, but opens up like a rose in full bloom to people she feels comfortable with.

-Rosetta Blakesly Angelica Wright, a sniffy, proud, frail sort of girl, who deep down is as fragile as her body and simply is misunderstood by her outside attitudes and airs.

-Mrs. Wright (don't remember her first name :/ since I practically never call her by it), Rosetta's mother, who... over-eats, and is a great busybody, always bossing and declaring her opinion. Is somewhat downtrodden by her husband, who doesn't really provide for the family as he ought.

-Irvin Findlay (DON'T TAKE THIS NAME, all you people!!), Lydia Findlay's older, 18 yr. old brother who hates a false show of piety. I love him so, I almost wish he were real!! =D That's why, no one is allowed to take his name- I love it, and it's perfect for him!! He's honest, caring, but impatient with religiosity.

-Lee Joel, a young man who has a strong passion for the Lord which drives him, and directs his life's path.

Abigail Hartman said...

Spot on, Rachel! I must say, the names you chose for the Seasoning children (or rather, the names they ended up having) make me chortle. Dill Vervain Octavius...! I've always been partial to the name "Octavius."

Names are such quirky things. There always seem to be something you have to watch out for in writing them. For instance, take Justin of Wordcrafter. I couldn't ever say "Justin jumped"; I had to rearrange the words to get "Justin started" or "he jumped." As for Tip of White Sail's, he can't make any facial expressions in which the word "lip" is included. And in ending a name with an "ee" sound one has to be careful with adverbs. The complications amuse me.

Unknown said...

My characters names come before anything else. If I can't remember the name, or keep searching for another, I know I haven't got the right one. And they all say something about my characters.

ashley tahg said...

Do all of Basil's siblings have seasoning names?

Rachel and Sarah said...

Ashley, the Seasoning children do [intentionally] have Seasoning names:
Basil, Rosemary, Dill, Angelica, Fennel, and eventually Lavender. :) It's rather satisfying to know that at least the oldest four were all popular names back in the Victorian era. :)