What’s in a Name?

Rose and Light, courtesy Sharon Mollerus “clairity” via Flickr Creative Commons

“-that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Romeo and Juliet (II,ii,1-2)

No offense Juliet, but would any other name honesty smell as sweet?

Names are not as interchangeable as Juliet would have you believe. Some parents deliberate months over the name for their newborn-to-be. They want the perfect name, the name that will sum up the hope and expectations they have for their child’s future. Sometimes the name breaks with tradition; sometimes the name carries the weight of a legacy that seems too bulky for a newborn. Sometimes, the name is just what was at the top of page 13 of the baby-naming book.

But the name is important.

Names will provide key elements to the setting of the story, if planned correctly, cementing the reader in the crafted world. The wrong name can suspend the reader’s belief and topple the strongest of settings. Should you find yourself struggling, consider the following:

First, concentrate on what you want the name to represent. Are you after a particular culture or heritage? Are you using surnames? “Western Culture” surnames have only been around on any consistent basis within the last six or seven hundred years: Professions like Cooper and Fuller, patronymic designations like Kristiansen or McIntosh, or places like Lisbon or Forrest are much reflected. If your setting is in France, Alexandre Berger might be more appropriate than Alex Shepherd. Alternately, what sort of aggravation would Alexandre Berger face in Singapore if few locals could pronounce his name? Agatha Christie had success using Hercule Poirot in similar situations, a Frenchman, sorry, Belgian in England.

Try to keep name anomalies to a minimum. Don’t use too many distracting letters (Fantasy writers are particularly guilty of X, Y and Z abuse) and don’t use names that you yourself can’t pronounce. Spelling Jennifer as Tzynnaephviere might detract more than you think. Ginnifer may be all the exotic flair you need.

Check the genre. Thriller/Action type stories tend to keep things quick and strong: Jack Ryan or Alex Cross. Fantasy novels have names with deep mythical roots: Arwen or Guinevere. Romance novels are engineered, word for word, to elicit an emotional response: Rhett and Scarlet conjures to mind the color “Red”, representative of passion and fire. Gone with the Wind may not have worked as well with Ned and Nancy, of Carolyn Keen fame.

Yes, you don’t have to follow guidelines. If you don’t, just be aware of what your readers’ expectations will be and be prepared to explain why those rules are broken somewhere within your story.

If you don’t already have a copy, I urge you to try the Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook, by Sherrilyn Kenyon with Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet. Scrivener patrons have access to a name generator that is helpful in a pinch and simple to use. I’m sure there are other similar “writer help” books or websites, so do some research and find the resource that appeals most to you.

How do you choose the perfect name? Where do you go for inspiration when you struggle? Is there a favorite resource that you would like to share?

5 Responses to What’s in a Name?
  1. Brianna
    December 20, 2012 | 4:32 pm

    I love baby name books and websites for naming characters. I tend to choose names that either don’t have a nickname or could have a common nickname, like calling Emily “Em” or Nicholas “Nick.” My favorite book is “A Is For Atticus: Baby Names From Great Books.”

    • shelton keys dunning
      December 20, 2012 | 4:46 pm

      I haven’t heard of “A is for Atticus”, that sounds like a baby-name book I could wrap my brain around. I tend to shy away from baby-name books because their focus is different, that and my mom gets way too hopeful whenever I pick one up. :)

      What I like about the “Character Naming Resource” that isn’t always addressed in a baby-namer is that the layout divides names by cultures, i.e. Russian, Slovenian, Irish, even African. It also delves a little into surnames, which is helpful.

      When I worked in the mortgage industry, I used to keep a list of interesting last names that came across my desk. I’ll never forget working on the multi-loan package for a couple named Glasscock. Honest, actual name.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, and giving us such a wonderful resource idea!

  2. beebeesworld
    December 20, 2012 | 6:13 pm

    interesting prospective-enjoyed reading your blog!

    • shelton keys dunning
      December 20, 2012 | 6:33 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed your visit. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

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    December 21, 2012 | 4:45 am

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