“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
How do you name your characters?
Is it with as much care as you would name your child?
- Some cultures believe that the name of a child will impact the person that they will become.
- Some cultures do not name a child until they show some personality trait, and then choose a name that reflects that.
- Some cultures rename individuals throughout their lives, with a name that is most fitting for that character.
- Some name their children after the parents or a family name.
- Some are named after favorite saints or gods and goddesses.
- Some cultures name according to birth order.
- Some give two or three names, utilizing one or two or three of the above customs.
- Surnames were often given to reflect a person’s profession: John the Baker=John Baker.
Regardless of the name or method used to choose the name, there is always a reason behind the chosen name(s). But in all cultures, the name has to mean something.
So would “A rose by any other name would still be a rose?” Yes, in one sense. In real life, a person named John, if renamed Jacob would be the same person, same personality, same looks, same everything.
But would that person’s name give the same connotation to someone who didn’t know him?
Let’s use a different example.
Say Jacob was actually “Jakob.” What would you think about that person? Perhaps a person of Jewish heritage.
Say Jacob changed his name to Julie. What’s the connotation now? What would you think if you knew that Julie used to be “Jacob?”
What would you say if your character knew that his parents wanted to name him Emma, but settled for Emmett when he was born? What if they had named him Emma anyway? What might that say about the son, but also the parents and the family’s dynamics? There’s an entire story there!
Do you see how complicated names are?
I don’t know if I truly realized just how complicated naming a child was until my son was born. We thought we had 2.5 more weeks to finalize our name decision, or even to finalize the shortlist. Instead, the naming process was forced upon us early, before I felt truly ready. But would I ever have been really ready to decide on a name that would influence my son’s life forever? In the end, we settled for using several of the above customs, a name we liked, which happened to be a biblical name, as well as two family names. We may (or may not) have overused vowels in my son’s name. But c’est la vie.
Names not only influence the initial impression a character gives to the reader, but also hints at his or her life. Let’s use Jakob versus Jacob again and think about it in terms of the character arc. Perhaps Jakob has been going by “Jacob” for most of his life, but his legal name is “Jakob.”
Maybe when Jakob was younger his parents called him Jakob and spelled it with a k. This suggests, without us even being introduced to his parents, that he was born into a Jewish family that still follows their Jewish beliefs. But when Jakob got older, he decided to distance himself from his Jewish heritage. At school his friends call him Jacob, at work his co-workers call him Jake. To the outsider, he appears to be a melting-pot American of indistinguishable heritage.
Now, let’s say his story is one of cultural discovery. He enters into some character arc where his past or his parent’s past is brought to his attention, and he begins to respect his parent’s culture much more, perhaps even to the point of converting back to the Jewish beliefs. By the end of the novel, he is asking his friends, co-workers, and family members to call him “Jakob.”
Now what’s in a name, William Shakespeare?
Exercise: Do this for your characters. Look at your protagonist’s and antagonist’s names. What do they indicate about the characters themselves and their background? Could you possibly change their names or the spelling of their names to indicate something about their past or their heritage? Would doing so strengthen the theme of your novel?