What’s in a Name? A Lot

“If names are not correct, language will not be in accordance with the truth of things.” Confucius

When we’re born our parents give us a name which may turn out to have nothing to do with who we are or how we think of ourselves. My first name means “noble” or “illustrious” in German. I don’t think I’m either, but I was given the name simply because it was my father’s name. He was given it because his father served with an Albert in WWI. (For the same reason, I have an uncle named Alvin York.)

When we create fictional characters, though, we have the opportunity—the obligation—to give them “correct” names, names that are in accordance with their truth. That, for me, is one of the most difficult aspects of writing fiction. If I don’t pick the correct name for a character, I can’t make that character believable for myself and, thus, for my readers. I can’t make him/her true.

I once read a cozy mystery by an author whose name I have forgotten. It wasn’t a bad book, but I had trouble getting into it because the main character’s last name was Pigeon. “You created this character out of whole cloth,” I wanted to say to the author. “Why stick her with a name like Pigeon?” Her son was named Tyler but his middle name was Clay. That’s right, Tyler Clay Pigeon.

At least poor Tyler’s a fictional character and doesn’t have to endure the teasing and name-calling that would surely arise from that awful moniker. But real parents do that much and worse to their children. In my lifetime I’ve known women named April Flowers and Crystal Ball. In my files I have a copy of a birth announcement from my local paper. The parents named their daughter Kamrie Georgia-May Dixie KizzieLynn JessieJaymez. That’s all the proof you need that naming a child and alcohol don’t mix. Another recent gem was from the obituary of a woman who named her three daughters Treaser, Faleter, and Rotunda.

I think children should be able to sue parents who inflict such misery on them from the day of their birth. It’s tantamount to child abuse.

Maybe I’m overly sensitive about names because of my last name. Kids can be merciless, so I got “ding-dong” all through elementary school. To make matters worse, I had a nickname, which to this day makes me cringe. When my family moved from South Carolina to Cincinnati when I was eleven, I told my parents I was done with the nickname. I seized the opportunity provided by moving to a place where nobody knew me and nobody had ever heard that damn nickname. If I could have changed my last name, I would have done that too.

The only time I’ve ever revealed the nickname–other than to my wife–was when I wrote a book about that stage of my childhood. You can buy a copy: http://www.amazon.com/Perfect-Game-Imperfect-Lives-Celebrating/dp/1932158413/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1408630615&sr=8-1&keywords=perfect+game%2C+imperfect+lives. Strangest thing, though. My high-school girl-friend married someone else in 1964. In 1992 I ran into her and her (second) husband. As we talked, she mentioned her children’s names. She called her younger son by the nickname that I had hated as a child and had dropped long before I ever met her.

When my wife and I adopted our first two children, we thought quite a bit about names. There could be no “B” or “L” sound, and we wanted ones that had two syllables, to counterbalance a monosyllabic surname. We settled on Stephen and then Matthew, who have, of course, been Steve and Matt since they were in elementary school.

When we adopted our girls from Korea, we tried to find English names that had some-thing of the sound of their Korean names and we kept their entire Korean names as their middle names. Our older daughter has long refused to use anything but her middle initial. She doesn’t like the way her Korean middle name makes her stand out on paper. The younger daughter recently married a nice fellow whose family is from Mexico, so she is now the Korean girl with the Hispanic name who lives in a little Dutch town, a one-woman testament to cultural diversity. She gave her son (from her first marriage) a Korean middle name.

For a contemporary mystery which I wrote several years ago, Death Goes Dutch, I wanted to make the main character a Korean adoptee living in the Dutch environs of west Michigan. DeGraaf is a common name here, not quite Smith or Jones but common. I’ve always liked Sarah and Rachel as women’s names, but Sarah Bell and Rachel Bell don’t work. They remind me of Clarabell and Pachelbel. But I had a chance to use one of those names in the novel, so Sarah DeGraaf was born. I decided to name characters in the book after members of my extended family—aunts, cousins, and their children. The villain, of course, was not named after a relative. You can find the book here: http://www.amazon.com/Death-Goes-Dutch-Wooden-Mystery/dp/1932158650/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1408634005&sr=8-1&keywords=death+goes+dutch

Whatever name an author chooses for a character, there is bound to be at least one person somewhere with that name. You’ve seen, I’m sure, the Taco Bell commercial featuring four men named Ronald McDonald. A librarian told me she knew at least four women named Sarah DeGraaf. I thought that might mean at least four sales. Some fictional names become iconic—Harry Potter perhaps being the most obvious. In my files I have a class list from some years ago containing the name “Potter, Harry.” Yes, I was one of Harry Potter’s teachers. I ran into him in an airport a few years ago. He is now a Catholic priest. I wonder how people who don’t know him respond when they find a voice mail that begins, “Hi, this is Harry Potter.”

Writing Roman mysteries using some historical characters relieves me of part of the onus of choosing names. Pliny’s name, after his adoption by his uncle, was Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus. (Caecilius was his father’s name.) There’s nothing I can do about that. Tacitus was Cornelius Tacitus, although we don’t know his first name; it might have been Publius. A typical Roman man’s name had three parts, but over time extra names (cognomina—nicknames) came to be added. One minor character in Death in the Ashes was Lucius Aelius Plautius Lamia Aelianus (try putting that on a name tag at the class reunion). Pliny’s mother was named Plinia (sister of Pliny the Elder) and Tacitus’ wife was Julia (daughter of Gaius Julius Agricola). Women of the citizen class in Rome were always given the feminine form of their father’s family name and sometimes had a second name taken from another male relative, perhaps a grandfather.

Pliny writes several letters to his mother-in-law, whose name was Pompeia Celerina. He mentions her more times than he does his own mother, whom he never names. Pompeia’s father and any brothers would be named Pompeius. But Pliny never mentions his wife’s name or the name of Pompeia’s husband, presumably dead by the time Pliny was writing. So I had to (got to?) pick a name for this otherwise anonymous wife. The commentaries on Pliny’s letters were no help in identifying his wife’s father, so I felt free to settle on “Livia” as her name. To me it has a somewhat imperious, arrogant ring to it, probably because the emperor Augustus’ wife was named Livia, and she was a piece of work. The name is in accordance with the truth of my character.

Where I have the greatest problem is in naming minor characters, especially servants, inn-keepers, merchants. Many of those people were non-Roman. Servants were often named/renamed after mythological characters whom they were thought to resemble. One of my characters is a Jewish slave named Jacob whom his master renames Nestor, after the wise old counselor in Homer’s Iliad. I have been known to change the names of such characters two or three times as I rewrite, much to the consternation of my writers’ group. The lists of characters that appear in my Pliny novels are helpful to me because they let me quickly determine if I have used a certain name before. (Of course, if I kept extensive lists and notes as I went along, I wouldn’t have that problem, but I don’t.)

My favorite character’s name is Aurora. She has snuck up on me, appearing briefly in the second Pliny book and taking a larger role in each succeeding book, until now she’s taken over the title of the newest book, The Eyes of Aurora, due out on September 9: http://www.amazon.com/The-Eyes-Aurora-Notebooks-Younger/dp/156474549X/ref=pd_sim_sbs_b_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=1NPMQ5035NZ1RWBACZQT
Writers’ magazines suggest several ways to pick names for characters and issue cautions about how naming can go wrong. The advice can be applied to naming children as well. One list summed it up this way: “Think it through.” Say it out loud, consider how it could be misconstrued (don’t name a character Stan Dupp or Clay Pigeon or Crystal Ball), and think about the image it creates in your own mind. Is that the image you want in your reader’s mind? Do you want your reader to chuckle every time the character’s name comes up? To go back to Confucius, is your character’s name in accordance with the truth of things, the truth of who your character is?


6 Responses

  1. Wonderful post! I, too, think long and hard about the names of my characters — I have a full shelf of books about names from different parts of the world, and their meaning. And I, too, have adopted daughters …and kept their Asian names (only one is Korean) as their middle names. My daughter from India uses her Bengali name with her Indian friends. My daughter from Korea just uses her (English/American) first name. My Chinese daughter chose her own American name, and doesn’t use her Chinese name. And my Thai daughter has changed even the name I gave her, shortening it from Alicia to Ali. She hasn’t used her middle name in years, although sometimes she uses her middle initial. (She’s been married 3 times, so that complicates the whole “name” issue, too. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Yes, I do the same, and weigh their euphony, weigh them in relation to the other characters’ names, the role they play, etc.

    But I would like to think that my character Juno Dromgoole does not exist in the real world, since I brought her names together from two different sources and would like to believe no parent could be that cruel. 🙂

  3. Father Harry Poter reminds me of a minister we used to know who served a church named after Saints Peter and Paul. He’d answer the phone, “Saints Peter and Paul, Paul speaking.”

  4. I also used to know a minister named Grady Nutt. He even appeared on the old “Hee Haw” show. He was as funny as his name sounds.

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