Naming Your Characters

Recently, my husband and I hit the baby name books in anticipation of the birth of our daughter. We made lists; we consulted baby name sites, friends, and family. We considered name meanings and trends in popularity. And, when she finally arrived, we still took a few hours selecting from our narrowed list. Choosing her name felt like an important responsibility, because we knew the name would stay with her for her whole life, could shape her in someway, and would provide insight into who we, as her parents, anticipate that she might become. Names and their origins can have similar significance to our characters, whether real or fictionalized. Here are a couple of things to consider when naming your characters along with examples from well-known writers.

1. Who named your character? A parent, a relative? Perhaps he or she named himself or herself. Maybe they go by a nickname, and if so, from where did that nickname originate?

In the novel, Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison, Pilate, a central figure in the novel, is introduced at her birth, when her father chooses her name using blind selection. He “had thumbed through the Bible, and since he could not read a word, chose a group of letters that seemed to him strong and handsome; saw in them a large figure that looked like a tree hanging in some princely but protective way over a row of smaller trees. How he had copied the letters out on a piece of brown paper; copied, as illiterate people do, every curlicue, arch, and bend in the letters, and presented it to the midwife,”who is horrified but unable to deter the father from the name he has chosen. “No. Not like a riverboat pilot,” she explains, “Like a Christ-killing Pilate. You can’t get much worse than that for a name. And a baby girl at that.”

This section both reveals something about the father and his hopes for his child as well as sets up a window into the character of Pilate. Ironically, Pilate is quite the opposite of the cowardly, “Christ-killing” Roman. She is generous and hospitable even though she exists on the margins of society. And she becomes, as best she can, the protective tree that shelters several members of her family, including her own daughter.

2. What is the relationship between your character and the person who named him or her? What does the name mean to your character? What does it mean to the person who chose it?

In the short story, “The Scarlet Ibis,” the narrator chooses a name for his younger brother who is ill from birth and expected to die. The brother’s illness is so severe that the family even orders a coffin for him. The parents name the ill brother William Armstrong, which, according to the narrator, “was like tying a big tail to a small kite. Such a name sounds good only on a tombstone.” Much to the surprise of the family, the child begins to crawl and eventually talk. The narrator explains, “as long as he [the ill brother] lay all the time in bed, we called him William Armstrong, even though it was formal and sounded as if we were referring to one of our ancestors, but with his creeping around on the deerskin rug and beginning to talk, something had to be done about his name.” The narrator names his brother Doodle, because, when crawling, William Armstrong looks like a doodlebug.

The narrator’s dominant struggle is embarrassment at Doodle’s weaknesses (he isn’t a proper brother) and later guilt over this embarrassment. Yet, the narrator is also the one who invests the most in Doodle and likely adds to Doodle’s quality of life. The act of naming his brother shows a sense of ownership and later of insight into Doodle’s character.

3. How might your character’s name evoke a sense of a culture and society beyond the character’s own? Naming your character after a familiar person or place can generate useful thematic material.

In his novel, Mrs. Bridge, Evan S. Connell introduces his protagonist with the following passage: “Her first name was India–she was never able to get used to it. It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her. Or they were hoping for another sort of daughter? As a child, she was often to the point of inquiring, but time passed and she never did.”

For a novel about a woman confined by gender stereotypes and the perceived expectations of her class, this unique name seems out-of-place. Yet the opening sets up a recurring structure related to the novel’s theme. Mrs. Bridge is consistently on the verge of breaking with tradition, but with each opportunity, time passes, she fails to act, and she becomes complacent again until, ultimately, she grows isolated from her children through her own construction and finds change no longer possible.

4. Can the origin of your character’s name be used to shed light on conflict, character, or setting? Is the name appropriate to the time period in which your story takes place?

The novel, A Pale View of Hills , offers another example. Set in postwar Japan, the narrator, Estuko, experiences tension between traditional customs and a desire to be liberated from them. This conflict is embodied in her relationship with her two daughters and is communicated in the opening pages of the novel. She explains, “Niki, the name we finally gave my younger daughter, is not an abbreviation; it was a compromise I reached with her father. For paradoxically it was he who wanted to give her a Japanese name, and I—perhaps out of some selfish desire not to be reminded of the past—insisted on an English one. He finally agreed to Niki, thinking it had some vague echo of the East about it.”

Exercise: Identify the moment a name was chosen for your character. This may have occurred before he or she was born, could be a nickname acquired after a playground brawl or an embarrassing incident, or a name the character chose when starting a new job or going off to college. Create a scene that describes in detail the person who chose the name and what inspired his or her decision. You may want to use the Toni Morrison passage as an exemplar. (Note: Morrison also has a great scene describing the origin of Macon Dead Jr.’s nickname, Milkman). Remember, this should be a scene steeped in sensory detail, not exposition about from where the name originated.

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