What’s in a Name?

by limebirdmike

Names… names are important things. In mythology it’s believed that if you know someone’s true name, you gain control over them. Ok, so maybe that’s taking it a little too far, but the point still stands – names are important.

The reason I wanted to talk about names, and specifically in terms of short story or novel writing, is because in many cases names can imply a lot of hidden meaning. I remember one particular creative writing class I attended way back in my first year at university. As we were doing our weekly read-through of the work for discussion, one particular student read out a story involving a secret agent, a car chase, and a mysterious suitcase. All well and good, I thought to myself – sounds interesting enough. Doubtless much better than whatever I had produced that’s for sure. Imagine my horror then when I discovered one of the “lackeys” in the story was called… Igor!

If I were to say the name Igor to you, I imagine most of you would imagine a character similar to the one I imagined: a tall, lumbering, Transylvanian, straight out of 1950s horror movie. The fact we’re all imagining a grotesque Frankenstein-esque character is because the name Igor is quite a powerful one in our 21st century Westernised minds.

And it’s not just names like Igor that can assign (possibly unintended) traits upon characters. What about Adolf? Or Wayne? Certainly names such as Wayne will probably lose their associated chavviness when Mr Rooney retires and is no longer a major part of the public consciousness, but even before he came along it’s often been a name attributed with a certain, shall we say, “demographic” of society. Any other Brits remember Harry Enfield’s Wayne and Waynetta?

Chav prejudices aside, I hope you will all agree that names can often assign characters with attributes that may or may not be intended by the author. It’s important to remember when writing, the power that a name can hold. It’s also important to remember that names that are popular now, may not be popular in ten, twenty, a hundred years’ time. Names such as Courtney, Sharon and Cindy for all inspire a certain range of feelings and emotions in us that probably won’t apply to readers half a century from now. We can’t help it – it’s modern society that’s done it to us!

I’ll always remember the time when I first started writing major fiction when my best friend Sean walked into my room to find me perusing a baby name book:

“Mike is there something you’re not telling me?”

“No, why?”

“Don’t you need to have a girlfriend first…”

While it may have seemed a bit strange for Sean to find me perusing a baby name book, it really was with good reason. As I hope you will agree, names contain an awful lot of power and hidden meaning, and must be chosen with extreme care – especially in genre fiction. You might be surprised to learn that I’ve been known to spend days stuck on a single name. Unless I have a name absolutely right in my own mind, then I just can’t write any more! Thankfully the last name I had any major problem with resolved itself fairly quickly; I borrowed from Percy Shelley in the end!

Until next time,

Mike

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8 Comments to “What’s in a Name?”

  1. Great post Mike! I completely agree with you that names can make a big difference. For example my NaNoWriMo novel that I am doing at the moment, I struggled quite a lot with picking a name for my central character. I went through loads of different ones and some of them were people that I knew or didn’t like, so those went.

    I eventually settled with ‘Ava’. The meaning of ‘Ava’ is ‘like a bird’, which I absolutely loved. Obviously it links back to our lovely Limebird and I also liked the association with freedom that it gave off. I then had the difficulty of picking a name for my ‘baddy’, trying to determine names which were ‘bad’ was very tricky. I’m not going to reveal the name, I’ll let you all have a nice surprise when my novel is finished…. 😀

    PS – Don’t panic.. it’s not Mike!

  2. Good post, but then they can’t all be Ebenezer Scrooge. Sometimes a simple name is all that is needed, and best, like Carrie or Buffy or Arthur. Readers invest meaning into the name, even a name like Mike.
    -Michael
    The Fiction Side: The Storyteller http://mgkizzia.wordpress.com/
    The Non-Fiction Side: Word & Spirit http://michaelkizzia.wordpress.com/

  3. Wonderful post! Yes, names are hard to come up with, and ones that have good/bad feelings for you may have different good/bad feelings for someone else.

    For my NaNo novel, a lot of the names I am using have specific meanings that tie into the book, so hopefully, the names live up to the characters for the readers!

    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  4. Delightful post. First, because naming characters (and stories, actually) is something that I love and hate for the very reasons you specified. I spent much of yesterday staring at a draft and having an inner-argument with myself about the name “Jenny” and how inappropriate it was for my character on several levels. I also appreciated the baby book thing. I resort to baby-naming websites because too often when preparing to purchase a baby-naming book I’ve imagined my father coming to visit and having a heart attack.

  5. So true! Countless names have been ruined for me (in life, too) because there was a girl I didn’t like in primary school with the same name… Or is that just me? Great post, enjoyed it.

  6. Thanks for all the lovely replies!

    Beth, Ava is a great name! I love discovering interesting names. I have to say I spent AGES coming up with Lena, though my newest character, just sort of ‘came’ to me.

    Reading all these replies got me thinking about Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. Would “Marvin the paranoid android” be the same character if he was called Mike, or Ben, or Stuart? There’s something perfectly dull and slightly pedantic about the name Marvin that fits the character perfectly (no offense to all the Marvins out there!) As M G Kizzia says, even the simplest names can contain meaning! 🙂

  7. Seriously – there are so many great names that I have such a personal connection to (sometimes disastrously so) that have forever been ruined for me, due to my own connection with them! And I have also had perfectly decent stories ruined for me because the author picked some sort of funkified name… 😉

  8. This is probably a little off-topic but this post made me laugh, Mike: I have a colleague who works overseas and we’ve never met face-to-face (nor spoken on the phone for that matter!). His name is Igor. And yes, I do envisage him as “a tall, lumbering, Transylvanian, straight out of 1950s horror movie” – at least I know it’s not only me that has problems with certain names.

    And yes, even simple names have plenty of meaning. Some of them even hold a lot of power. For example, how many people do you know, or have heard of, who have named their newborn Harry? Since 2006, the name Harry has been in the top five most popular baby boy names in England, and we all know where that popularity came from.

    And Beth, a little snippet for you: the name Ava was third most popular for girls in 2009 – nice choice! It’s a great name 🙂

    Caroline.

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