By Guest Blogger: C.L. Roman
Trust me on this one. Authors put a lot of thought into naming their characters. Why?
If an author has done their job correctly, readers fall in love with them, or love to hate them. Those readers will follow a beloved (or behated) character through plot after plot, rather than lose them. And characters are identified by their names, the very mention of which conjures notions of bravery, honesty, talent or superlative evil. It is no surprise then that those names can become more recognizable than the titles of the books the characters inhabit.
Think of the names of some of your favorite literary characters.
Harper Lee’s Scout, J.K. Rowling’s Harry, Margaret Attwood’s Offred – none of these names came about by accident. The author chose or invented the name for a reason. Whether it was to symbolize the character as a whole, explain an essential detail of personality, convey a secret truth about a personality type, give the story an ironic twist, delineate the character’s role in the story, or foreshadow the individual’s eventual end, character names usually have a purpose.
But does any of this really matter? Do readers sit around pondering the meaning of character names? Some do. Some don’t. So why do authors put so much effort into naming characters?
There are a number of reasons.
Appellations have a certain “feel” or intrinsic meaning attached to them based on the traditional definition, or cultural connotation. Would Alice Armstrong steal money from the helpless little old lady? Alice means “noble.” Armstrong…well, it kind of speaks for itself, doesn’t it? So, unless the name is being used ironically, Alice is probably an upstanding citizen. On the other hand, any American who grew up during the cold war might have trouble with a protagonist named Boris.
Unlike real people, characters in books have names that compliment or directly oppose their natures, creating a sort of personality shorthand for author and reader alike. Just like other symbols in literature, a lot of the meaning in names is subliminal. Without realizing it, readers draw certain conclusions about a character based on what they are called. This means that some of the heavy lifting of characterization can be accomplished with relative ease.
In my Outcast Angels series, for instance, the angel’s names are derived from the words for giants and/or gods in various cultures around the world. Fomor is a shortened version of Fomoire, a race of gods out of Irish mythology. Danae is his wife. Her name is taken from the Tuatha dé Danann. Their union reflects the intermarriage between these two mythological races. Since all the major players in this series are angels, demons, or half-angels, I wanted names that indicated from the first page that these characters were not wholly human.
In my current work-in-progress, I chose the name Maeve for one of my main characters because it is the name of a warrior queen, and the character is a fighter who will not be dictated to, yet who is not afraid to love.
It is true that sometimes Bob is just Bob. No hidden meaning, no symbolism involved. Just…Bob. Especially when the character is minor, it may be that the name is nothing more than a convenient identifier. Alternately, maybe the author has a character who they originally named Tom but then realized there was already a Timothy in the story. So, the author changes Tom to Joe for no other reason but to avoid confusion.
Of course, with such a mundane name, the reader is clued in that this character may not have a very big place in the story. So even plain Jane names have a purpose.
That purpose might be just to make the character accessible. Let’s face it; most of us aren’t wizards like Harry. But Harry – the boy with the ordinary name – wasn’t so ordinary after all. That dichotomy is what makes him so relatable. We are all ordinary on the outside, but characters like Harry Potter assure us that it is what is inside that really counts.
And that’s the magic. Finding characters that in some way mirror our own experience is the reader’s door into the fictional world. Sometimes the name provides the key.
C.L. (aka Cheri) Roman, writes fantasy and sci-fi with a paranormal edge. You can find her at www.clroman.com and on Facebook. Cheri and her ever-patient husband live in the not-so-wilds of Northeast Florida with Jack E. Boy, the super Chihuahua, and Pye, the invisible cat.
You can find Cheri’s books