I orginally wrote this post as a guest blogger. Since I’m beginning a new manuscript and waiting for characters to tell me their names, I thought I’d dig this out and share it with you.
What’s in a Name?
Are names helpful, harmful or lethal? Recently, I read an article by Jessica Dickler on CNNMoney.com about people who believe their names are holding them back from finding jobs. An every day guy with the name of a famous, but dead musician. A woman with a name too hard to pronounce. A common name with a weird spelling.
Based upon names, do we harbor preconceived ideas that influence our interactions with others? Think about it for a minute. Did you ever have a best friend named Aloysius? Or Almira? I’m a wagering woman, and I’ll bet not. What do you expect Millard to look and act like? Or Rutherford, or Ulysses? Are they the geeks and dorks from school? Mama’s boys? Do their names sound at all important? Or possibly, let’s say, United States presidential?
What about names for girls like Louise, or Beatrice, or Charlotte? Old fashioned sounding, yes? Not popular now at all? These names represent current European Princesses.
Right or wrong, we do harbor notions, most of them lodged in our subconscious, about names. We even have emotional responses to them as well. This indicates names probably influence how we interact with people.
Another example, let’s look at Hannibal. A warm feeling washes over me when I recall my camping outing to Hannibal, Missouri, home to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Then, there’s Hannibal, son of Hamilcar Barca. I respect a man considered to be one of the greatest Carthaginian commanders in all history. But, what about Hannibal joined with Lecter? That name produces a completely different response.
From my unscientific experiment, names influence us. Does that hold true for characters? For most fiction writers, characters live in their heads and whisper incessantly until a writer brings the character to life on pages. Characters named Cody, Colt, Cheyenne, and Savannah summon immediate images. Cody might be the president of the cattlemen’s associations, but probably not the president of a foreign country. Cheyenne may be a top fashion-runway model, but probably not your dad’s cardiologist. As readers, which all writers are, names help us make sense of a character. Names give credibility to a character’s personality and help us, the reader, connect with them.
And then, there are those times where names cause dissonance, like Hannibal Lector or Romeo Montague. Shakespeare’s Juliet spoke the quintessential lover’s words regarding a name:
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
Next time you pick up a book, look at a character’s names. Roll it over your tongue, let it slip off your lips, then rattle around in your brain. Conjure up an image, then read the book cover to cover, and let us know how the name fit…or didn’t, the character.