Will any ole name for your characters do? Maybe, maybe not. It’s unlikely that an eighteenth century American Indian went by the name Gweneth or Alistair. By the same token, I doubt many Victorian Brits were assigning Aleshanne or Chenoa to their children’s birth certificates. Name selection typically reflects a person’s cultural background and the time period of his life. In fiction, it might also consider name associations.
Would you rather go on a blind date with Horatio or with Jake? With Adolph or with Aiden? What would you see in your mind’s eye if a woman named Elvira had been arranged to meet you at a sidewalk café? Does the image change if her name is Myrtle? How about Bambi or Zena? Tom, Dick, and Harry look different as Filbert, Humphrey, and Buford, wouldn’t you agree? Somehow we suspect they might act differently, too.
First impressions are subject to preconceived ideas, which unconsciously find their voice in the names we choose for our characters. Not many of us will name our hero Sigmund without logic guiding our selection.
And a deliberate logic can not only enhance characterization through name selection, it can also foreshadow or enhance the thematic, action, and emotional development plot lines of your story.
What’s In A Name?
In Catch-22 Joseph Heller introduces Yossarian as a WWII soldier with an Assyrian heritage, though the "ian" suffix of his name suggests an Armenian background. Yossarian, though, isn’t an Armenian last name. Perhaps, as some readers believe, Yossarian’s first name is revealed when Colonel Korn refers to him late in the novel as John. The line ("Call me Blackie, John. We’re pals now.") is enigmatic, as is Yossarian.
"Yossarian" was chosen by Heller to allude to his protagonist’s estrangement from the military culture. The name is described as "an odious, alien, distasteful name, that just did not inspire confidence …not at all like such clean, crisp, honest, American names as Cathcart, Peckem and Dreedle."
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the protagonist, Hester Prynne, is forced to wear a scarlet “A”, marking her as an adulteress. While the name Prynne sounds like prim, as in’ prim and proper’, it also rhymes with sin. Hence, the book’s theme—an exploration of righteousness and sin, and of shame and personal identity.
Hawthorne weighs in with a verdict on his heroine by naming her Hester, a variation of Esther and biblical reference to the beautiful and devout Hebrew woman who was made a concubine of the Persian King Xerxes. Esther later becomes King Xerxes’ wife to secure the welfare of her people.
Prynne’s daughter, named Pearl, alludes to the biblical phrase ‘pearl of great price’, meaning salvation comes at a cost, even the salvation derived from defining and standing firm on one’s identity. We see deliberate nuances attributed to Hawthorn’s other characters, also. Dimmesdale: dim, dark, or weak. Chillingworth: intimidating, leaves his acquaintances cold and frightened.
Like Hawthorn and many others, Flannery O’Connor also used a biblical allusion to name her Wise Blood lead Hazel Motes, an atheist whose dress has people mistaking him for a minister and whose street corner rants indeed set him up with a ministry. Hazel, a dirty shade of green, plays off its association with jealousy, and Motes references the Bible verse that says to remove the log in your own eye before attempting to pluck the mote from someone else’s.
The name of Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois from Streetcar Named Desire clues the attentive reader to her counterfeit nature. While Blanche, French for white, might suggest that she’s pure and innocent, as the story unfolds, we learn that Blanche is anything but. Her last name, DuBois, which means made of wood, exposes the character’s inherent irony. Her purity is wooden, a bogus construct. Blanche’s desire to secure the social status of her new acquaintances compels her to hide her past behind a tapestry of lies.
Harry Angstrom is the hero of John Updike’s Rabbit series. If the character’s surname vaguely rings a bell, angstrom refers to length, precisely a unit of measure equal to one ten millionth of a millimeter. The imagery reflects the character in a couple of ways. Harry is trapped in a small world, for starters. Early in his adventures, he attempts to break free of his hometown. Hardly beyond the city limits, however, Harry fails. The man is afflicted with a sense of powerlessness from the moment we meet him in Rabbit, Run until we embark upon his last days in Rabbit at Rest. Harry’s powerlessness, of course, is largely self-perceived and as a result, largely made absolute by the consequences of choosing and acting in desperation. His surname could perhaps, too, be linked to his sexuality, as Harry feels short-changed (if not in his own anatomy, then in the bed he has made for himself). Harry Angstrom, the prick you come to love, is on his own wavelength. How apropos, then, is his name, as angstrom depicts the defining quality of a wavelength.
In the TV series Lost, an albino research rabbit makes a short-lived appearance in the role of ‘Angstrom’. While the research on the island revolves around wavelengths, the bunny’s name choice, like so many characters on Lost, tips its hat to a renowned thinker, in this case Updike, whose thematic work also reconnoitered the nature of life, death, and redemption.
In Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins employs a number of devices to highlight a character’s nature and relationships. Her protagonist’s name, Catniss, sounds like cat-ish, meaning catlike. And like a cat, Catniss is autonomous and aloof, which makes her difficult to understand at times. Contrary to most pets, cats aren’t inclined to conform to the will of others. Compliance isn’t written into their—or Catniss’—DNA, but neither is the desire to seek dominance, as the concept of an Alpha is foreign to cats. While they insist on ruling their lives and will fight to protect their territory, cats will not transgress into the role of the aggressor. The name Catniss Everdeen, like Hester Prynne and Harry Angstrom, is a work of art.
And as Hunger Games claims, catniss is in fact the name of a plant. It grows in fishponds, relatively in isolation, possessing both the male and female aspects. On another level, then, we see the character’s autonomy, as well as the physical and mental strength stereotypical of men who face combat. But the imagery gets even better. The plant catniss is—wait for it!—from the genus Sagittaria, Latin for "belonging to an arrow". One can only say wow.
Peeta Mellark, who is able to turn his pain into words that will change people, is the baker’s son. His name, a homonym of pita, reflects his nature, as Peeta is a nurturer who feeds others. In certain dilects, Peeta is also a homonym of Peter, which means the rock, and that, Peeta is. On a similar note, Mellark sounds awfully close to meadowlark, otherwise known as the bird of hope.
Gale Hawthorne shares his sir name with Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose work spoke against the puritanical judgments native to his New England era in stories that portrayed their effects on humanity. And like the American writer, Collins’ Gale Hawthorne sees through the sham of his society’s errant mindset and will not remain silent.
His first name, as a common noun, refers to a forceful wind. From the onset of the Hunger Games series, we see Gale Hawthorne as a force to reckon with. As powerful as a gale might be, though, it’s dominated by a global climate. Hence, Gale will take on a fight, but the large picture might get the better of him. The word’s second definition—’a noisy outburst’—hangs in the balance. Gale Hawthorne, at times, is blown here and there by his powerful emotions.
President Snow. Snow paints a landscape white, making it difficult to discern the physical reality. And what is snow but a cold rain? In this character’s case, a cold reign.
Effie Trinket, the escort who tries to encourage the tributes to be happy about their upcoming participation in the Hunger Games, is obsessed with superficial details.
Even the Mockingjay, the hybrid species created when the Capitol’s warfare mutations mated with indigenous mocking birds, now mocks the Capitol.
And then there’s the author’s direct reference to a character’s name.
Nicola Barker writes of her Darkmans’ protagonist, “Beede was his surname. His first name—his Christian name—was actually Daniel. But people knew him as Beede and it suited him well because he was small, and hard, and unquestionably venerable (in precisely the manner of his legendarily bookish eighth-century precursor).”
Of course, a case could be made for passing over the seemingly irrelevant detail of a character’s name. Most readers will not take notice, and your story will stand on its own. But somewhere out there, dispersed among your readership, are those of us who live for the buried layers. Why not give us what we want, flick on every light in our brains and engage us in manifold ways? Throw in a little color. You’ll have fun while you’re doing it, and it may even help you develop your plot. (Who knows what came first for Suzanne Collins—the name Catniss or the protagonist’s prowess as an archer?)
In my novel, I named my protagonist Grant. While it sounds arbitrary enough, I chose Grant because it means tall and Grant’s wound or hole is that he has been made to feel small. His mother’s maiden name is Buhl, which means hill people and echoes Grant’s desire to stand on high ground to prove he is bigger than other people’s estimations of him.
Give your characters names some thought. If nothing else, you’ll surpass your own ambivalence and arrive at a name you love.