Write It Out: Names

This topic may not seem all that exciting to many of you. I definitely don’t want to bore you. It just happens to be a topic that I greatly enjoy, so I’m going to go ahead and talk about it.

The topic? Names.

I don’t know if it’s because I grew up knowing what my name meant and why that was important to my parents or if there was some other factor involve, but I have found names fascinating for as long as I can remember. In the US at large, the meaning of names tends to play less of an importance to parents than how the name sounds, any negative people associated with that name, and if it fits with the last name. That is not true in many places, though. Names and their meaning are very important to a lot of cultures.

Believe it or not, names actually mean more to us than we think. Most of us have never had to go through a forced name change. Those of us who took on a married name did so by choice. Not so with many adopted children. They took on a new name at the behest of their adoptive families. And to many of us, that may seem like an obvious statement that doesn’t require any deeper digging.

The problem, though, is that names are far more important than we give them credit for being. They mark our identity, and we know this in some sense. We get irate if someone steals our identity; we feel violated. It’s not just about the money they may have taken or the debt they may have incurred. We feel like an essential part of ourselves has been taken.

Adopted kids can feel the same way. I heard more often than I would care to admit: “What was wrong with my first name?” (Meaning the name they were first given) Now, many of the adoptive families that I worked with asked the children, even the very young ones for their opinions. And most of the adoptive families I worked with respected the fact that a name is a part of a person and even last name changes can be hard. But I also worked with kids who had been adopted and were back in the system for some reason. If their name had been changed, they voiced the pain of feeling like something must have been wrong with them because their name needed to be changed.

One in particular told me what the name her adoptive parents gave her meant. To her, the meaning of her new name implied something about her that made her feel ugly and unloved. She worried that she had somehow done something wrong and that this unknown wrong framed how her adoptive family felt about her and thus the abuse that later took place in the home. All because of a name.

Things like this and my upbringing and my fascination with names frame the way I view character names in any story I write.

Some stories, I don’t specifically look for a name that means anything in particular. I just go with a name where I knew someone with that name and they fit the character well. I try to avoid that, but if I am writing quickly, I often will choose a name at random like that.

When I’m more involved in the writing process, I will do a great deal of research into names belonging to a culture I want my character to portray. I look for famous people with that name. I look at what the name means. I communicate a lot about my characters through the research I do into their name before I have even written them.

And I tend to notice names in stories. If a name fit particularly well with a character for some reason, I am more likely to remember that name, the story, and the author. I will read more by that author simply because of the effectiveness of name usage within that story.

Not all of your readers or mine are going to care nearly that much about the names of the characters in a story. But to amp up the quality of our work, considering every detail is significant. Effective use of names to describe characters really helps build their identity and make them someone our readers want to connect with. We tell stories that are important to us, and when we do it well, they become important to other people as well. It may seem like it slows the process down, but I find that the research I do into the names I use often builds my connection with the character, helps me get a better idea of how I want to shape them as a person, and develops the story line better because I know more details about my character. They come alive.

When the words are flowing particularly quickly, I find it best to just let them flow, and I will use a filler name that is not one I would want to have associated with the character long term. Then once the words slow down and the story needs a little help, doing the research then helps to redirect my creativity and the storyline can continue.

Sometimes the meaning of the name is not as important as following a pattern I have set for my character, but often that pattern allows for a name that fits the character as well as the pattern.

Even if you find it tedious to do the research into the names, I would encourage you to at least be consistent in the level of importance you put on naming your characters. If one story, every name means something and the next none of them mean something, your more curious readers might get confused. I’m the type of reader that will look up names because I am interested in how that name plays into the character; I am that one crazy reader who will notice if one story the names clearly play a role and the next they don’t. Know your audience; if it’s likely you have people in your audience who will notice, then make sure you pick a pattern and stick with it. They may never voice it to you, but they will be thanking you for it in their hearts.