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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Writing Tip: A Character, a Personality and a Name

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet."

--From Romeo and Juliet (Act II, scene ii)

I fell in love with Shakespeare when I was in middle school. While my friends groaned at the very thought of having to plod through the thick plays, I was consumed with the characters, the tragedy, the comedic, the dramatic, the melodic words, and the strength of the women Shakespeare created. I spent most of my young life imagining myself as the ill-fated Juliet with the wrong name.  

Oh, how I wanted to change my name!  Thankfully, I had other friends who disliked their names as much as I did mine, so we all made up new names and spent much of our middle school to high school lives under cover of a different name, and if I dare to say, a whole new personality.  

Much like the color of hair, and the age old debate of the allure of blondes versus brunettes, I believe a name can hold the same power.  Especially in books, when the imagination takes hold of the written word and the reader is transported to another world.

As a writer, I can't help but remember how transformative a name can be.  I have been known to look through baby name books just to discover the meaning of a name. I try names on characters while I am developing a story and then find myself changing the name to suit the personality.  In my mind, a good name is part of the key to whether I fall in love with a character, whether the the character is the hero or the villain.  

As I've mentioned in a previous post, the perfect character name, whether he/she is friend or foe, has to roll off my tongue in a familiar way. J.K. Rowling is the mistress of creating great names and wonderful characters.

Take the Dursleys. Notice how this last name just rolls off your tongue in a dismissive manner. Cousin Dudley. Uncle Vernon. Aunt Petunia. Do you see yourself liking characters with these names?

Now you have Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Fred. George. Neville. Percy. Hagrid. Dumbledore. Professor McGonagall. The house of Gryffindor and Slytherin (All I could think with this was slithering snakes, and then when the gigantic snake appeared in Book Two, I was pleased). Sirius Black. Professor Snape. Draco Malfoy. Voldemort. What do you feel about these characters just based on their names? And then when you see how J.K. Rowling develops these characters, don't these names make perfect sense?

Names for our characters can provide some hints to the reader:
  • Ethnicity
  • Time Period - research this one well, if a name sticks out during a time period, it will take the reader away from the book
  • Family Background - an interesting way to present a name--what kind of baggage/expectation did the parents hand down the character feels pressure to live up to?  A blue-blood lineage?  Religious hopes?  Hippie dreams?  A love for literature?  
  • Personality - usually used in books for younger readers
  • Nicknames - Dreaded or Liked?
  • Meaning - Go through the baby naming books or websites to find out the meaning of a name.  
  • If a name sticks out too much, there needs to be some explanation to the reader on how it came about.
It's not a requirement to choose a name because of one of the reasons above.  A writer can choose a name, just because.  But, I think playing around with names for my manuscripts is fun. 

Yes, the name is minor, compared to everything else a writer needs to do to develop the character.  However, I believe a good name makes for a memorable character.  A good name helps flesh out the personality and can lead the writer on quite a journey of discovery.

What do you think?

This is the first in a series for Character Development.  


Christine M said...

You're right, the right name is key. I'm looking forward to the rest of your series on character development.

Sara said...

I fell in love with Shakespeare in high school. We had to memorize a speech from Julius Caesar, and I thought it was the most magical thing ever to have those words flow off my tongue.

beth said...

Names are hugely important. Because I've got a background in literary analysis, I almost always read a name and try to figure out the "deeper" meaning--many authors hide clues to the character within the name. I do it with my own writing, too. My current WIP is based very verrrry loosely on the myth of Bellerophon--the main character is named Belle Ravenna.

On a side note--I remember growing up not entirely liking my own name (it sounded dull to me). Maybe because of Archie comics, I always thought that "V" names were the epitome of grace and splendor. I named many many characters in my youth Veronica or Victoria or...Vivian :)

PJ Hoover said...

Name is huge.
In middle school, early high school, I wanted to change my name to either Scarlett or Vivian. So there you go. In college, it was Athena. I even got license plates with Athena on them.
I love this post and this discussion! Spending time thinking up the right name is super important!

Victoria Thorne said...

I think your name is epic. As mentioned previously, it is one of my very favorites (and you share the Vivian part with my mother, daughter, and grandmother).

Yes, a good name helps flesh out a personality for a writer. How much, I wonder, do names (in real life) help create a personality?

Vivian said...

Thank you. I love my name now, but at the time, it seemed too old-fashioned for me.

Good question!

Too funny about Scarlett. I dreaded the name since all the boys thought they were amusing when they called me Scarlett and teased me about who were the Rhett's or Ashley's in my life.

Very cool about the license plate.

Very nice character name, Belle Ravenna. And you're right, now that I'm older, the V names do have sophistication. Though I detest the nickname Viv, which for some reason, makes me think of a heavily made up, cigarette smokin' woman with nicotine stained fingers.


Julius Caesar is indeed wonderful. For some reason, I can imagine your delivery.


I'm glad you're looking forward to the rest of this. Hopefully, this will be helpful to people!

beckylevine said...

You made me laugh. First, because I fell in love with Mr. S. in 9th grade, but it was Polonius I loved reading, not Juliet! Then, because, I went by Rebecca for about one year--2nd grade--and never again...always Becky. I have never read either Rebecca or R of Sunnybrook Farm, probably because everyone always asks if I have!

The name thing in writing. Yes, it matters big time. I had one character with a name of someone I know, which I try really hard not to do, but I could NOT change it.

Kelly said...

Naming is so much fun! Makes up for my own lame name :) Thanks, Mom and Dad!

Vivian said...

One of my cousin's name is Kelly, and I've always thought it was, and is, a cool name!

It is amusing on how we think of our names, isn't it? Yay for having a name that works in a manuscript!

Jennifer B said...

I agree--a good name is very important. My husband has an unusual name (for an American) and he's told me how he wished--as a child--that he could just have an ordinary name like Johnny! Meanwhile, I have such a common name, I used to wish I had something a little less popular! There are so many Jennifers my age!

sheila said...

Have you read The Game, by Diana Wynne Jones? It's very clever how she manipulates the names of the Greek heroes for the story.

I always think Bad Liver Dragon when I think of Draco Malfoy (mal foi). Cannot get it out of my head!

Jules at 7-Imp said...

I had to write a picture book text in a grad course once, and I spent probably entirely too long on the name choice. But, you're right; it's vital!

Sarah Rettger said...

I tried to change my name over and over when I was younger, but no one else would go along with it :-) Sometimes I wanted to *not* have one of the most popular names for girls born in the 80s.

My characters have a tendency to name themselves, and not always names that I would have chosen. After I figured out the premise of my latest WIP, I started thinking about protagonist names, and "Carly" popped into my head. I'm not a big fan of it, but the character refused to be called anything else.

(And this particular WIP has strong connections to Travels with Charley, but it wasn't until I had written a few thousand words that I realized how similar the names were... it really wasn't deliberate!)

Little Willow said...

I too think names are quite important.
I also enjoy Shakespeare.