Thursday, April 15, 2010

Called by Name: Of Characters

This post marks the beginning of a series on the importance of names.

"I collect names for characters. Names are valuable; they can be your first source of insight into a character."
~Spike Lee

Naming a character is very important. Can you imagine reading a book where the main character remains nameless? I have; in The Bridge by Jeri Massi, one character remains “the woman” throughout the story. While I still enjoyed the story, I feel Massi missed an opportunity to make his character real when he didn’t name her.
And choosing a poor name can cause just as much, if not more, damage. Can you imagine a meeting between Bungo and Trotter in Bree, instead of Frodo and Strider? For Tolkien did use these names in an early draft of the story. On the other hand, the use of Sindarin and Quenya in formatting names—and the tradition of giving multiple names—provide many fine examples of naming, especially in the cases of Turin and Aragorn, both of whom I will discuss later in this essay series.
I will use one of my own stories, Fettered Wings, to expound upon the difficulties caused by poor naming. When I began writing Fettered Wings almost three years ago, I unabashedly stole the main characters’ names from The Silmarillion’s list of Valar: Lorien and Aule. Eventually I changed “Lorien” to “Loren,” because I was already pronouncing it that way, and because as a variant of ‘Lauren’, it has no prior connotations. Aule’s name, on the other hand, provided far more difficult to tweak, mostly because of the scarcity of names beginning with Au--. I went through Audie, Aurel, and Aulie, finally settling on Aurel…for the time being.
On the other hand, sometimes the name arrives with the character, especially if the story is sparked by a dream. For Sakuntala, I had dreamt of a man named ‘Dayvid,’ and Laia seemed to connect so naturally that I cannot recall if I dreamt her name or not.
Along similar lines, my story—now a novella through NaNoWriMo—Three Dark Roses came from a dream about a man, ‘Joel’s father.’ The part I played in the dream—a girl who needed healing— quickly became Abigail, and with two Old Testament names, ‘Micah’ seemed a natural choice for Joel’s father. While some names in that story are still being refined, I chose all names of Hebrew or Biblical origin to give the story unity.

In my stories where names did not come easily, I tried to choose a name that hinted at the character’s personality. My story Skye focuses on half-human, half-avian, children who were imprisoned for many years. Their names—Hawk, Finch, Cardinal and Swallow—echo the world they’ve never seen and hint at the rough nature of their speech.
On the other hand, my concept Olympus Rising required research for names. I chose the names of fourteen obscure gods and goddesses –Tanara, a Siberian sky spirit; Ajalamo, a Nigerian god of unborn children; and Nuada, a Celtic god (in my version, a goddess) with a silver hand. The story focuses on fourteen ‘gods’ who are discovering their powers, but are also being trained as pawns of two dubious men.
If a character has more than one name, each name marks something significant about the person. For example, my Sheltering Wings girls go by false names because of their mother’s fear of dragon slayers. Another example is Joel from Three Dark Roses. One character calls him ‘Blight,’ for a disease tearing away at a plant unseen, (he) had the ability to destroy the King’s followers from the inside. Later, Joel rejects his given name in favor of “Sha’av,” a Hebrew word for ‘turning away,’ because he turned away from righteousness.

Names have power in stories.


  1. Yay! A series on names! Naming has always been one of my favorite things about writing. Of course, I love almost everything about writing. ;)

    Great post! I'm looking forward to more in the series.

  2. I'm looking forward to more of this as well! I love the thrill and excitement of meeting a new character who comes to you already having the perfect name, but I love the challenge of hunting to find jus the right name for them too. Can't wait to read more!