What’s in a Name?

Today’s blog post comes from us courtesy of Roxanne St. Claire (@roxannestclaire), a fellow Twitterling (I’m not sure if that’s something we call people on Twitter, but I like the term, and thus it is what I call people on Twitter all the same.

In under 140 characters Roxanne wrote:

Sometimes just changing a character’s name changes everything. Just did that and heroine feels so much more “right” now.”

Right away, at least for me, that made complete sense. There are some writers out there who can write an entire story with their characters being X and Y before filling in the names. I, personally, can’t. A name means a lot to my characters. Often times, a story idea comes from the name, rather than fitting the name into a completed story. I don’t know, maybe that comes from my not much caring for outlines, but all the same.

Take, for example, Willow. One of the main characters in my novel Grey Areas. To me, she has always been Willow. I’m not quite sure where the name came from at the time (perhaps it’s just that I like plant names. Thinking about it, the Main Character in The Bleeding Crowd is Dahlia…) but from the moment I started writing, she was Willow. From that name, an entire back story came out that her parents had been hippies. Hence the plant names. (And the fact that her middle name became Belladonna). For The Bleeding Crowd, the names are even more set. Dahlia comes from a mother who loves plant names. The twins are Audrey and Zoe (A and Z for the two ends of the alphabet). All the men have biblical names (Benjamin, Jude, Abraham…)

But, ok, those all have plot reasons behind them. It would be a little odd to have all characters in X group have names that start with one letter and stray from that. In those cases, of course names matter. But what about just any old character? Does it really matter if a character is named Jill or Jane?

Of course, to quote Shakespeare, “That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet (II, ii)). Would it really have mattered to the story if Romeo had been named Sam? Or Bill?

Perhaps not. If you wrote the characters exactly the same, perhaps it wouldn’t matter if the play were “Bill and Juliet” but then, the name Bill just brings up a different connotation there, doesn’t it? The 1989 movie Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure just wouldn’t have sounds the same if it had been “William and Theodore’s Excellent Adventure” now would it?

To quote the great philosophers, the writers of The Simpsons:

Lisa – “A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.”
Bart – “Not if they were called ‘Stink Blossoms’.”

Perhaps a rose would still smell like a rose even if it were called something else. But what would someone’s first reaction be if you were trying to give them a Stink Blossom for Valentine’s Day? I doubt many people would want to even try smelling something that says it stinks in the name. And for those who did, you can’t discount the idea of the mind playing tricks. Something along the lines of the placebo effect. You tell someone something’s going to smell bad, less likely they’re going to accept that it smells good.

Personally, I think the same thing happens to a lot of writers. There’s a picture in our heads associated with names. Take Agnes for example. What’s the first thing you picture? Unless you know someone else named Agnes, it’s probably an older woman. Now Laquisha, or Vinnie. There are some names that are just associated with stereotypes – either because they are most common in one group than another, it’s a name used a lot in media referring to one type of person, or because they have been used as a negative “catch-all” for a group of people (such as someone insultingly referring to a hispanic man as ‘Jose’). There’s such a strong mental connection to some names that it doesn’t only affect how a reader sees the character, but it starts morphing even us writers’ ideas about our characters.

And, so were’ back to Roxanne’s point, “Changing a character’s name changes everything.” It’s probably why it can take so long to find a perfect name for one character, and why you couldn’t change another’s name no matter how much a publisher or agent pushes you to. It’s just the character’s name. It’s how you see them. It’s who they grow to be.

And so, a rose might still smell like a rose, but it wouldn’t be what we expect it to be. And that changes everything.

(If you’re struggling to name someone or something in your story, naming sites around the web can help you find something that seems to “fit.” I made a handy list of a small fraction of these sites available here to help point anyone looking in the right direction.)

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2 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. TrudyJ says:

    This totally happened to me! In the historical novel I just had published, I had intended for the main character to be stuck in a loveless marriage to a stern, unsmiling man named Albert John. Over the various ins and outs of the early draft I ended up giving the name “Albert” to a minor character and renaming the husband “Jacob John.” As soon as he came onstage (in my head) as “Jacob John” I had a completely different mental image of him, which included his suddenly very sarcastic sense of humour, which in turn completely changed the relationship between the two of them and a major part of the plot.

    I’ve never had a name change have such a drastic effect before, but I’m living proof it can happen!

  2. Drew says:

    This happened to me in my first novel. Both of the MCs’ love interests changed names halfway through the first draft to something that felt more right.

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