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What’s In A Name?

You’re writing a creative writing piece: a short story, a novel, a screenplay. Your characters are compelling. You love them. But now you have to name them.

How are you going to decide?

You could choose randomly using one of those name generators some fancy writing programs have or you could choose the first name of your favourite childhood celebrity and the last name of your grade five teacher. In fact you could devise many ways of coming up with random names. I’m here to tell you don’t.

Names can and I believe must provide more meaning, depth and symbolism to your work. Don’t just brush the task aside thinking the name of your character is  meaningless. Choosing a meaningful name will have a positive effect on your readers. They’ll feel you’ve invested in them and that you think they’re clever – clever enough to understand why you’ve hand-picked a certain name. Well chosen names will also make your characters more memorable in that your readers will think of them long after they’ve returned the book to its shelf.

Here’s an example:

This past summer I read Anne of Green Gables. First time. (Loved it!) I found it interesting that the name of one of Anne’s peers in the book is one Josie Pye. Josie is not a nice child and somewhere towards the end of the book the reader understands that it’s a Pye family thing not to be nice.

I wouldn’t have given the surname Pye a second thought had I not read a book this past year called Crow Lake by Mary Lawson (also a favourite). One of the families that live in Crow Lake (a farming village in northern Ontario) is the Pye family. The Pye family has suffered generations of bitter discord and at once the reader bears a dislike for the patriarch of the family Calvin Pye.

The use of the name Pye in both Crow Lake and Anne of Green Gables seemed to me too much of a coincidence – especially since both books are very Canadian books. I googled “Mary Lawson”.
This is what I found on Wikipedia:

Mary Lawson (born 1946) is a Canadian novelist.

Born in southwestern Ontario, she spent her childhood in Blackwell, Ontario and is a distant relative of L. M. Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables.

Interesting right?

So this is the conclusion I drew. Mary Lawson wanted to create a distant connection between Crow Lake and Anne of Green Gables in the same way she is distantly related to Montgomery.

I don’t know if my conclusion is accurate. But the find is certainly interesting. Lawson’s usage of the Pye family name inspired me to think about the book months after I had read it. And I’m still curious as to whether my finding is correct.

A name should define, embody, symbolize. It’s not an easy task. Ask any parent about naming their child. And naming a character is still more difficult – or perhaps much easier – depending on which way you look at it.

When a child is born to its parents, the parents do not yet know what their child will grow up to be or how they will act. Will a daughter named Adina be as delicate as her name suggests? Only time will tell. But when an author gives its characters a name, all that character’s traits, triumphs and failures are known.

You’ve thought long and hard about your characters. Now they deserve a name that suits them. Don’t cut corners. Not here.

What do you think? Do names of characters really matter that much?

3 Comments

  1. Love it Liat and yes – I do think a character’s name is important! BTW – I’d love to subscribe to your wordpress blog but can’t. Any way you can opt that in? This is me:

    • liat

      August 30, 2012 at 6:35 pm

      Hi Talya – Thanks!
      You can now subscribe via the RSS feed button – top right.
      Thanks for the kick in the butt!

  2. liat

    August 30, 2012 at 11:51 pm

    Here’s a great blog post on The seven rules for picking those names. Thank you Brian Klems!

    http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/the-7-rules-of-picking-names-for-fictional-characters?et_mid=576922&rid=231697535

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