A Rose by Any Other Name…
I chose the Canadian classic Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery for a visual because Ann hated her name and always wished to be called Cordelia. And if that couldn’t be managed, she would ask they spell Anne with an e. Because…
“…it makes such a difference. It looks so much nicer. When you hear a name pronounced can’t you always see it in your mind, just as if it was printed out? I can; and A-n-n looks dreadful, but A-n-n-e looks so much more distinguished. If you’ll only call me Anne spelled with an e I shall try to reconcile myself to not being called Cordelia.”
Words have two aspects: how they sound and what they mean. When it comes to names, what they mean no longer matters to us, they are chosen for how they sound. But there is a third aspect: what associations do the names carry.
As a writer, I have a number of resource books at hand such as Chambers Slang Dictionary, Medieval Terms and Phrases, and Dictionary of Surnames. One useful resource is The Baby Name Survey Book, by Bruce Lansky and Barry Sinrod. The subtitle reads, “What people think about your baby’s name”. So you’re writing a romance novel and you have a male character who is a sloppy ne’er-do-well and you want to call him Freeman. This reference book tells you “people picture Freeman as a handsome, neat, well-dressed, proud, and wealthy black man.” Several examples are listed: football’s Freeman McNeil, actor Morgan Freeman. Perhaps Freeman should not be your first choice.
Suppose you like the name Ciara and wish to use it for your female protagonist. The Baby Name Survey Book states:
“People see Ciara as a classy, exotic beauty…She’s also smart––some would call her intellectual––and caring. When people hear the name Ciara, they also picture a bottle of Ciara perfume.”
I won’t dwell on this. The point is to consider associations the reader may have with a name.
I write historical fiction and I enjoy the time I spend choosing character names. One story I am writing has the protagonist wash up on the Falkland Islands in the early nineteenth century. I don’t wish to have him struggle with Spanish speakers, so I make the patriarch of the family who find him Irish––having first researched and discovered many Irish soldiers settled in Argentina after a failed invasion by Britain. My naming process is to google Irish surnames, read through the lists, and pull out several possible choices. I narrow the list down to four or five. They are:
Then I do the same with Irish male Christian names. I find so many good ones.
- Ruari (Rory)
What becomes important to me now is the sound and rhythm of when first and last name come together. I come up with one of the most rhythmic names: Clooney MacKigo. Say it aloud a few times. Feel the rhythm? You could probably tap it out on a drum. And I’m getting a sense of the character. Clooney will have a sense of humour, but MacKigo is strong-willed and a force to be reckoned with.
I have used this process with The Swan’s Road, my novel set in eleventh century Europe. I have had to find names for medieval Saxons, Danes, Frisians, Normans, Welshmen, European Jews, and Italians. Usually I have an idea for the character and I search for a suitable name. I named my female protagonist, a determined and confident beauty, Selia Fehr––forgive me the play on Selia the Fair, I just loved the name. One good thing about period and ethnic names is they do not carry the baggage discussed earlier.
Here is an excerpt from The Dane Law, a sequel to The Swan’s Road, and a work in progress. Harald, my protagonist, and his friends are ribbing another Danish friend, Yngvarr, about how the king will reward him.
“…so he may give you gold…”
Yngvarr’s eyes opened wide.
Yngvarr took on the look of a puffed up grouse in full courtship. He took another swig of ale.
“…or he may do you the ultimate of honor of marrying you to my ugly cousin Gullborga.”
We three dove aside as Yngvarr sprayed his mouthful of ale across the table.
“I beg of you pardon,” Yngvarr said to Selia as he wiped the table with his sleeve.
“It is all right,” she told him. “Harald must have his jesting.” She gave a look to me and shook her head slightly.
“You don’t have an ugly cousin Gullborga, do you, Harald?”
“No, Yngvarr. In truth, I do not.”
“Well then, that’s good.”
“No, her name’s Bothilda and she’s twice your size!”
“Ah, you won’t be catching me twice on that one,” said Yngvarr, “besides, the bigger the woman, the warmer the bed. I’ve always admired a woman with plenty to hold on to.”
This playful scene only works because of the choice of particularly unflattering names for the imagined cousin. To call her Mary or Sarah would be much less effective. (Please note: I tried to make this piece end on a positive note for bountiful women.)
One other important thing a writer should do is keep track of names and avoid using ones that look similar or are the same. I have read novels where they have two Michaels or a Michael and a Michelle. A fast reader may mix up the names. I keep an alphabetical list and try not to double up on monikers starting with the same letter. One would not have a Terry and a Jerry, even if they were twins.
I’ll end with a few of the fictional character names I used in The Swan’s Road and let you determine what kind of character qualities each conjures up.
- Bertran deZouche
- Floriano Roncalli
- Ravya ben Naaman
- Urbano Pupo
To see if you are right, you’ll have to read The Swan’s Road. I hope this article gives you a greater appreciation of well-named characters.
And if you were to change your name…