Friday, June 29, 2018

Writing: What's In A Name?

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Actually, that's a paraphrase of the lines some guy named William Shakespeare (a pretty good writer) penned several hundred years ago. The actual words, from the play Romeo and Juliet, go like this. "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet." But you get the picture. Whether Romeo's last name is Montague or Juliet a Capulet, the two individuals love each other. It doesn't matter what they are called, with all the history that goes with it.

If that phrase is accurate, and words don't really matter, why doesn't a writer just pick names willy-nilly for his/her characters? Actually, it appears that some do, but the thoughtful writer doesn't. Instead, there are some things we try to consider (or at least should).

We should avoid having two or three characters with easily confused names. We go to great lengths to describe them so the reader can identify them, but then we fail to separate the names. Was that Robert or Richard who's the weak brother? Was the best friend Julie or Jane? And remind me again what part Derek plays...or was it David? I try never to have two major (or even significant minor) characters whose first name starts with the same initial. I don't always succeed, but I try.

One of my favorite authors, Donald Westlake, gives a female character (who starts out an "extra" but pretty soon plays a major role) the first name of Chloe. She's described as dark, attractive, hard to get a handle on, a woman of mystery. And somehow, that name seems to fit her. Not every name calls forth a picture, but it's great when that happy situation occurs. Can you form a mental picture when Robert B. Parker refers to Spenser's friend, Hawk?  His name fits the character he plays--ebony complexion, shaved head, slightly larger than life, controlled emotion beneath a calm exterior. The name just fits him.

So, even though a rose would smell as sweet by any other name, we've gotten used to the mental picture a rose conjures up, and would be quite surprised if we sniffed one and smelled a different odor. Better to stick to names with which the reader can identify.

What's your favorite character name, and why? I'd like to know.

Tweet with a single click. "In writing, does a character's name matter?"

8 comments:

greg fuller said...

I like three character names. All from the novels of Robin Cook. I like these characters because I can pot myself in their roles. The names of the characters are: Jack Stapleton, a laid-back forensic pathologist-medical examiner, Laurie Montgomery-Stapleton, (Jack's wife), to go getter always asking the Dr. Richard Mabry's question: "WHY?" "HOW COME?" And my last favorite character her name is Pia Gradzani. She was an abused child and her father turned her over to mafia as sex-slave. She was psychologically, mentally, and had psychiatric problems into her adult life. I can relate to her because my father abused me in the same manner. He didn't sell me to the mafia or anything...but being born different than my three four siblings...he stated: "I will never claim you as my son, you're embarrassment to the family, you caused me to drink so I don't have to look at you...you mess up my Navy career because now we have to stay put in California because of Shriner's Hospital for Crippled Children Thanks a lot.

Paula said...

I agree with you about choosing a name carefully and to vary the first letters of names I have read some books that were confusing because of that. Don’t forget pets and kids, too! I have been mixed up due to a pet’s name. Funny I don’t remember the book now but I kept flipping back to find out who was who!

Richard Mabry said...

Paula, my first reader (my wife) helps me avoid name-confusion. Unfortunately, I've seen some books that weren't written with that in mind.

Priscilla Bettis said...

My favorite character names are Queequeg (Moby Dick), Scout (To Kill a Mockingbird), Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde), and Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights). I am surprised by my own answer because none of these are contemporary stories, and I do read contemporary books. Must be that I like the uniqueness of these names . . . no Josh or Mary or Frank.

I haven't been brave enough to try it yet, but if I wanted to use an usual name in a story, I would probably surround it by bland, everyday names because multiple unusual names would be confusing to the reader.

Thanks for posing the name question. I had to think hard about my answer because no one's ever asked me before.

Richard Mabry said...

Priscilla, just one more thing a writer has to keep in mind. I found out quickly that it wasn't simply sitting down and putting words on paper. Lots to learn. Thanks for your comment.

Patricia Bradley said...

Greg, it's your father 's loss! I hope you haven't let his attitude define you. My nephew was born with spina bifida and he has excelled - graduating from junior college cum laude and then he went to a university where he was free from the restraints of home. Joined a fraternity and those boys, bless their hearts, looked after him.

God sees you as worthy...I wonder how he sees your father...

Patricia Bradley said...

Richard, names are so hard for me, even pet names. I once named a dog Dog because I couldn't think of a good name. lol. I usually use the Social Security baby names website to pick first names then I used Scrivener's name generator for the last name. As for favorite names in books, Scout...beyond that it's too early in the morning for me to remember any others. lol

Richard Mabry said...

Patricia, just because I said naming is important doesn't mean I followed that admonition, especially early in my writing career. Only after I'd done a number of books did I realize the truth of some of the "rules" given to me early.
And thanks for your advice to Greg. I'd still been turning his post over in my mind, trying to decide how to respond. Your comment was perfect.