What's In a Name? (Or, The Masterful Art of Naming Characters)


A friend recently recommended the BLUE BLOODS series (not some sort of novelisation of the cop show with Sergeant Lipton, unfortunately) to me. I scanned the blurb and found my processor not passing beyond two words. Schuyler Van Alen. Schuyler Van Alen. It took me a while to figure out how you're meant to pronounce that. Skew-ler van Halen. Yes, my mind read that as Van Halen. That, dear readers, is a teacher's worst nightmare in four syllables, or what I presume is four syllables. Who knows? I still haven't figured out how to say it. Is it Skyler? If so, why isn't it spelt Skyler?

Basically, if I can't figure out how to say a character's name within a fraction of a second of reading it, I am going to put the book onto the Gifts pile. (Yes, I actually have a pile of books which I give to people for their birthdays which have only been used to the fifth page.)

It isn't so bad for character names which I abhor. Usually, I'll suffer through a book if it's good, but I'll probably not go into the sequels. FALLEN's Luce, pronounced Lucy, infuriated me. Every time I saw her name I thought that it couldn't possibly be Lucy because I have nicknamed my friend Lucy as Luce. As in Loose. But that was the problem with it. There was no reason for her to be Luce, and every time I saw her name, I was drawn out of the story.

Personally, the more intricate the name, the more indie the spelling (or anti-spelling as I've come to call it), the more "normal" the character, and the more my regard of the author plummets. Surely, surely, they can create a vivid character without festooning them with a parade of character! preceding them every time they're mentioned.

If you're going to use superfluous names or spelling, I want a reason. I really do. Sometimes mundane names can be great, they can also hold metaphors and subtext. Flamboyant names make me think that you have no idea how to characterise and you're just throwing something wacky out there to make me remember your protagonist. That is, if you're set in "our world", in our time, in somewhere like New York. In that setting, when everyone is called Langford van Cassel den Rayne, I can't go on.

I know that character names can hold references and meanings. I know that. I'd rather something atmospheric for each character, a la JK Rowling. Think about it. Draco and Snape, serpentine, fitting for an antagonist. Hermione, Shakespearean, bookish. Dumbledore, enchanting and childish, almost in a similar strain to Santa. If you can go subtler than that, do it. Names can be evocative. Think Nigel, a man with a nasally voice and a fondness for tweed, someone Stanley Tucci would play with flair. Or, Trudy, a rubenesque red-haired woman. Or even Kirsten Miller's Kiki Strike, all sharp consonants, reflecting someone curt, tough and even mysterious.

I think that a name says more about a character's household than it does about the character themselves. I mean, the parents name the child, right? The only time a name says something about the character is when they've renamed themselves. For instance, Gwendoliana was named because her mother dreamed of a sinewy, prima ballerina daughter, but in reality, she's a rugby player who chews tobacco and smokes two packs a day. In this name, there's conflict. Ergo, Gwendoliana is a much better fit than, say,  Shannon or Betty.

Oh, and please, for the love of God, just pay attention to ethnicities and cultures. If someone is Russian, then do your research and look into the naming intricacies of the Russians and all the wacky diminutives that are factors in that. And whacking a Chen on the end of an Asian character's name is just lazy. Seriously.

Even when it comes to fantasy names, take a leaf out of Tolkien's book. You've got hobbits and even then, Frodo, Sam, Pippin and Merry are all simple names. Boromir and Faramir are humans, and their names correlate. Arwen, Legolas, Galadriel, Elrond - all similar sounding and majestic names. I just come up with easy shortcuts for names with apostrophes in them and funny phonetic letters, like graves and other accents.

So, what are your thoughts?

How strongly do you react to character names? Do you prefer plain names over flamboyant ones? Or do you think that strange names up the escapism appeal?


JeffO at: December 18, 2011 at 11:12 PM said...

Names have definitely gotten a little more 'out there'. When I was a kid I was surrounded by people with names like Chris, Karen, Mike, Donna, Jennifer, Robert, David. Not surprisingly, my stories are littered with those 'ordinary' names. I tend to roll my eyes a bit when I see concoctions like 'Schuyler van Alen', but I don't think I've ever not read something just because of a name.

MissUnknown at: December 19, 2011 at 11:54 AM said...

I prefer plain, if "plain but memorable" can't be managed (using normal names doesn't mean everyone becomes John Johnson and Sarah Smith). I agree with you about pronounciation and how "out there" names can detract from the story. I don't like spending half the book wondering how much drinking the parent's of all the characters did before deciding what to call their child/ren. That said, I can't really think of any books which I've read with overly unusual names - possibly because many of the books I read are fantasy-world-based where you can manage unusual names as long as the pronounciation/spelling is reasonable and there seems to be some sort of shared naming system (as you said, with Lord of the Rings).

That being said, it's sometimes nice to have a "cool" sounding name for characters (doesn't necessarily mean outrageous) to add a little to the escapism, I guess - but sometimes appreciation for a name grows after you fall for the character themselves :)

Carol Riggs at: December 19, 2011 at 4:43 PM said...

I like more unusual names for my characters, but not too complex. And are you kidding??--I just read FALLEN and had no idea Luce's name was pronounced Lucy. I mean, how would I? (It didn't say, did it, and I just missed it?)

I'm contemplating a Hispanic name of Ana for a new novel, but I'm afraid readers will pronounce it Anna or Ai-nah rather than ah-nah. I tend not to like to use names that are questionable in pronunciation.

Trisha at: December 20, 2011 at 12:19 PM said...

Brilliant rant! This cracked me up: "In that setting, when everyone is called Langford van Cassel den Rayne, I can't go on."

And I take pride in using "ordinary" names for most of my characters.

Michael Offutt, Supra-Genius at: December 25, 2011 at 7:03 AM said...

Leo looks so good in that picture.

Ella at: January 27, 2012 at 3:17 PM said...

This is totally true. I hate it when I'm reading the blurb of a book out loud to someone, and it has a character with a really messed up first/last name or something--and I basically garble through it. And then the whole "name-that-has-more-than-one-pronunciation" thing when I'm wondering which pronunciation is the *right* one throughout the whole entire book. Drives me nuts ^-^

Anonymous at: August 30, 2012 at 12:25 PM said...

The author said it is pronounced your rant is invalid.

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