Name Droppers

I was talking the other day with E.L. James and Hugh Howey about what a bunch of name-droppers we writers are.

Okay, maybe that part didn’t happen, and I don’t mean name-dropper in the conventional sense. I mean that as writers, we have actually dropped certain names from literature.

When we choose our characters’ names, we use the opportunity to enhance the reader’s mental image of the character. Certain names just don’t seem to do that as well, so we drop them from the lexicon. They may not be totally gone, but to the extent they are used at all, they are given to minor characters.

This is not particularly new, and I do not even say it is necessarily a bad thing. Consider Gone With the Wind. Substitute the name of the character Scarlett O’Hara with Bertha Titsworthy. Substitute Rhett Butler for Cletus Suggs. Those names may evoke an image in a reader’s mind, but our very powerfully-written description aside, it probably won’t be an image of Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable.

Any character’s name is the shorthand for the description you provide of them. You won’t repeat the description each time you mention them, so their names stand in, providing the reader a mental image of your character. Therefore, we look for names that fit the character types.

That ends up shrinking the gene pool quite a bitโ€”more so in some genres than others. That’s why It is hard to find a book in mainstream fiction without a character named Jack.

Clearly, fantasy and science fiction writers plow their own ground insofar as character names. Bilbo Baggins is unique, but still conjures up a sense of being markedly average. I think that was sort of the point.

Darth Vader is an effective name for a villain. The reader can tell right away this guy is no florist.

Even though in these genres, the names may be unusual and even unprecedented, they are still evocative of the essence of the character.

None of this means there was never a hot chick named Mildred, or a hunk named Dewey. But, choosing those kinds of names for vixens and iron-jawed heroes might make you work against the readers’ mindset. It could make it harder for the reader to become immersed in the story.

As the author, you name the people in your book. Doing so is an opportunity to add a little luster to your story. The reason I point this out is that I have a tendency to use placeholder names for my characters. These names can often be somewhat comical or far-fetched.

One of my current endeavors has a protagonist with a rather ridiculous last name.The book is a collaborative effort with another author, who shall remain nameless (Brooks). We’re probably going to want to reconsider the name, or because of the nature of the book, we may decide to leave it as is.

Either way, it will be a collaborative decision (made by Brooks), and one which fully weighs (or completely ignores) the considerations raised here.

How much thought do you put into your characters’ names?

Author: Stephen Hise

Stephen Hise is the Evil Mastermind and founder of Indies Unlimited. Hise is an independent author and an avid supporter of the indie author movement. Learn more about Stephen at his website or his Amazon author page.

16 thoughts on “Name Droppers”

  1. Another great post! I tend to put a lot thought into naming a character. To be sure my fictional character has the right name, I search the name meaning, history and origin ahead of time.

  2. I put a lot of thought into character names. I hope my readers get interested and care enough to do research on names. I love biblical names and use them pretty frequently. I use to find them because I look up meanings and find a name that correlates with the character’s personality.

  3. Interesting post. My main characters seem to name themselves and once they do I find it hard to think of them any other way, but I do struggle to name secondary characters, particularly for surnames – a good reason to keep the number of characters overall low!

    1. I don’t always change names, but I do often find that the way a character grows and changes throughout the story makes for an opportunity to consider a more apt name.

  4. I am on a trend of male nicknames for strong female characters. I feel it gives them a little more strength – Charlie for Charlotte and Stevie for Stefanie. I also feel that when the hero ( I write romance) actually calls her by her given name it tends to feel intimate and then shows her in the light of female and not necessarily the strong woman I painted her to be. Names are important to me. I have stepped away from a book when a character has had a stupid name because I was embarrassed for the character and couldn’t get over it.

    I agree with Mel Parish above – I have named a character and by the middle of the book it doesn’t fit him/her anymore. Surnames are the hardest for me too. I have to admit I hit my facebook friends list and try a bunch out.

    I think naming the characters is one of the best parts of writing. It’s like naming your kids. You’re going to have to live with that choice for the rest of your life when the book goes to print.

  5. I couldn’t agree more with your premise, but I wonder if you noticed the somewhat Appalachian bias in the names you put in the Icky Box? I suspect we all have certain parts of the world/country/our high schools for which we hold unexpressed, politically incorrect scorn and correspondingly, for the names we associate with those places/groups/horrid individuals. (You may forget what someone did, but you – and your reader – never forget how they made you feel.) I see this phenomenon happening with names historically as well. Dear me, yet another thing to watch out for as a writer…

    1. I think the bias, to the extent it exists is more likely generational. Names come in and out of vogue. Many of these names are those of people with whom I grew up and around, and I am not Appalachian.

      There will probably come a time when people roll their eyes at names like Britney and Courtney as much as some of us might at Beulah or Gertrude.

      Likewise, those imbued with names given by the flower children, (Moon Unit, Dweezil) may find their names do not age well.

      1. Frankly, I already roll my eyes at “Britney” and “Courtney.” These are, indeed, popular in the current and passing generation, but they are also redolent of a certain segment of society, whether the owner is actually a member or the Assigning Parent was just a wannabe. (Apologies to anyone named either if that offends you. Don’t mean to offend – just being a sociologist.) And I agree that many names, possibly most particularly those sometimes bestowed by flower children on their offspring, will not age well. One of my friends named her daughters “California” and “Sweet Pea.” In the same spirit my own daughter briefly renamed herself “Princess Buckeye Flower,” which was fortunately such a mouthful she soon let it go. My ex had a particular aversion to men named “Clyde,” possibly because of some horsey, childhood pseudo-experience. The name I grew up with (a deep secret) is seldom found in historical records, and never in current ones. I credit with my isolationist tendencies to wearing it through my tender years. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Well done, yet again, Stephen; thought provoking as ever. Names are very important indeed. In real life they donโ€™t always correspond with the character of the person they belong to, but I find that somewhere along the line (from childhood to full adulthood) people who have names that donโ€™t suite them chose to (or someone else does) use part of their first or last name (we used to call them Christian and surnames until it became politically incorrect) that might better complement them; or they use a different name altogether, one that perhaps links in some crazy way. I knew someone in the army who would introduce himself… โ€œHi, Iโ€™m Mad.โ€ Everyone knew him as Mad, and it suited him, but his name was Reginald Hare and his birthday was March 1st; โ€˜Mad March Hareโ€™.

  7. Excellent post. I research my character’s names–usually I want the names to have additional, hidden meanings. I enjoy being clever, and my rabid fans can use Google to find out what I really meant.

Comments are closed.