Weekly Writing Memo: What’s in a Name

Weekly Writing MemoThrough all my conversations with other writers, I’ve learned that there seems to be two camps of people when it comes to naming characters, places, and things in stories. One group thinks that the names don’t matter, while the other spends hours finding just the right meaning for each name in their world. Personally, I think it depends on the story, as well as whatever it is you are naming. I do believe main characters should have names that mean something, or at the very  least, ‘fit’ the character’s story, but I don’t think everything in your story has to have deeper meaning. If you want to give the people, places, and things you name in your story special meaning, there are several ways you can go about it.

Origins

One of the main things I do look at when I am naming something is the origin of the name. What country is the name originally from? What language is it? Is it predominant in a specific religion, or culture? These kinds of details can help you pick names that have more history behind them to help with whatever you are naming. If you have a character that you want to have an Irish background, then a name with a touch of Irish history would be perfect. It doesn’t have to be a historical or cliché name, but it is an option. Another option is to research popular names in Ireland and pick one that way instead. You may end up with a name that isn’t classically Irish, but it will still have a connection to Ireland.

The point of this kind of research for the names you give in your stories is that it creates a built in history for what you are naming. Without telling the reader, you are hinting at where your character might come from and what their family connections are. Now of course people in real life are often given names with no connection to their roots, and you can use this in your story as well if you want, but by making a deliberate choice to either use the name or not you are making every element of your story count. So be deliberate, and if you decide to go against your characters origins, then make that part of the story as well even if it’s a minor part.

Preconceptions

Something else you can use to your advantage when naming a character, place, or thing in a novel are known preconceptions about the name you use. For example, if you use a name from a myth, many people will recognize it and have certain ideas about that character. Zeus is a mighty god with great power, who also happens to be a bit of a player, and a character named Zeus might be suspected of having some of those traits. There are all sorts of fables and legends out there from every different culture and time period, and even if you use one that doesn’t have meaning to the majority of the population it will still help deepen your character. The point is that it is another layer for a reader to find, and the ones that do will love the touch.

Beyond past myths, you can also use names from modern pop culture and such. Big names like Kanye or Justin are well known enough that they also have immediate pre-conceptions to them. Maybe in another 20 years they won’t have the same impact on your readers as pop culture changes, but for modern readers you can use names like those to paint a picture of who your character is. Big public names have personas around them, and if you’re writing a character with a similar attitude you can use those pre-existing ideas to help nudge your reader in a certain direction before they know anything else about your character.

Meanings

One of the final elements you can use when naming things in your stories is symbolism. There are all sorts of names and words that have deeper meaning beyond them besides the word itself. Most names have some alternate meaning to them when you research the original language they came from. These sorts of meanings can be used to speak to the type of person your character is going to be. If you have a surprisingly brave character, then choosing a name that secretly means bravery could be a subtle nod to readers who know that. These are the kind of details that won’t change anything in the story for the most part, but they can add another layer of meaning to your story. It can be especially useful when naming objects in fantasy worlds.

Final Notes

No matter your take on naming in stories, it’s important to consider what the minor details of naming can do for your story. The small touches can often give a story the extra boost to make it something special. As a reader, I know I enjoy the small details that I discover later on about a story, such as deeper meanings in names, and it only makes me enjoy the story more. If you do go the special naming route, however, I find it works best if you don’t go too obvious with the symbolism in the name. You want it to be a small touch, not a neon sign in your audience’s face. Ultimately, if you find a special name is something that will add to your story, then use it, if not, then don’t. It’s your story, so you have to decide what benefits it the most. Trust your instincts and you’ll be fine.

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4 Comments on “Weekly Writing Memo: What’s in a Name”

  1. Thanks for another great post, Robin. This brought to mind the “Back tot he Future” movies, where the family name is McFly, adding a touch of Irish, but Marty can’t give his real name to his family of the past, so he picks a name from pop culture, Clint Eastwood, which opens up all kinds of great gags. i.e. “If you don’t go out there, everyone will say Clint Eastwood is a chicken. You don’t want that do you?”

  2. artrosch says:

    Great post. I keep a list of funny names. Top secret! I’ve learned to use short names, when possible, because I know I’ll be spelling it many times.. Very important, a character’s name.


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