What’s in a Name?


Plenty, for fictional characters.  I’ve been working on a short story with a female protagonist.  Names for characters don’t always come to me quickly, and I’ve been waiting for hers to pop into my head, or to have some defining characteristic trigger name possibilities.  Yesterday I realized that I thought of her as “She,” without a specific name.  This is a new experience for me.  I prefer my characters to have names.  But she’s happy with “She.”  Now, so am I.

Naming a character is as important as naming a baby, especially main characters, their adversaries, and the main supporting players.  They need names that give them an appropriate presence, one that will stand the test of time for them, like a real person.  Minor characters that might only appear once in the novel, briefly, such as a hotel concierge, a store clerk, etc. often are not named unless they have a relationship, however superficial, with a named character.  Evan Quinn in Perceval often asks people their names and addresses them by name no matter who they are, so it is revealing of his character.  And challenging for me, although I don’t spend a lot of time thinking up those names.

Choosing a character’s name requires time to determine who the character is.  Details that influence name choice include gender, nationality and personality.  I also consider the emotional resonance I feel for the character, and how the name might reflect on the character.  I collect names.  I have a file of names that have caught my eye, and as I’m thinking about a character, I’ll read through that file to see if any of the names match the character.  If not, I’ll consult books of names also.  Sometimes I cannot find a name and must live with the character for awhile before trying again.  It is not a process to be rushed.

A couple of examples of the process from Perceval: Joseph Caine and Randall Quinn.

I saw Joseph Caine as a radical, a rebel, but compassionate, a natural teacher and creative.  He was Evan’s father’s best friend, a world famous composer, a dissident in the American Underground, and Evan’s godfather and mentor.  He’s also dead.  His death resulted from his dissident activities when Evan was ten, so I started to feel a Biblical resonance for him, as in “martyr.”  But I realized that he wouldn’t be religious, and might actually be an atheist.  The Cain and Abel story nagged at me for weeks and I finally decided to use Caine as his last name.  I’ve always liked the name Joseph, and especially the sort of “everyman” nickname of Joe, so I used that name for him to reflect the sense of a regular guy betrayed by Americans or his “brothers.”

Evan’s father, Randall, proved more difficult.  I already had the last name from naming Evan.  I’d chosen Quinn for its hard sound at the beginning, its one syllable and Irish origin.  Evan’s ancestors were Irish immigrants who’d settled first in Boston, then moved west with the homesteading movement, settling in Iowa or Nebraska, but then later moving to Minnesota.  I also wanted an Irish name to connect with another character with an Irish background.  The first name took me a couple months to find.  I stumbled onto the name when I was writing a flashback memory of Evan’s about his father.  I kept thinking of his father as being “randy,” the kind of guy who sexualized everything, a misogynist, but a brilliant writer.  From “randy” to “Randall” was a baby step.  Randall is a name I don’t particularly like, that sounds formal and heavy.  But it suits Evan’s father, especially the nickname Randy.

In Perceval and subsequent novels in the series, some of the character names have meanings, others I chose because they fit the character’s personality and I liked the name.  For fictional characters, names are important and need to reflect who they are to help make them memorable to readers…..

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