Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Anatomy of a Name

Yeah... I couldn't help myself. I love names, and I love the art of naming. While coming up with a name is not the most important step in creating a character, it does help bring him or her to life. I mean, if you just referred to your main character as The Hero, that would probably get rather boring by the third page. Names ground your characters and contribute to the illusion that these are actual human beings (or elves, or dragons, or aliens... whatever). There are exceptions or course, usually in short stories, but in most novels and movies, the main characters' names are key elements that help bind it all together.

I tend to name my characters early on in the development process. Often, the name is so wrapped up in who my people are that I can't imagine them being called anything else. When an author assigns a name to a character, we latch onto it and begin to associate all kinds of meanings with that name.

For example: Jason Bourne

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For those of us who have seen the Bourne movies, instantly we've got a plethora of words pop into our heads-- action, intensity, running, danger, intelligence, shooting, memory loss, intrigue.

Now let's analyze him a bit more, starting with the name Jason - This harkens way back to the mythological hero Jason and the Argonauts, searching for the Golden Fleece, traveling the world, battling evil. But the name also surprisingly means "healer." Interesting.

And then there's Bourne - This brings to mind rebirth, new life, bearing weight, and second chances. Put the two names together and you get someone who's fast, cool, yet has a subtle compassion about him. But that's not it! You see, Jason Bourne is not his real name... he's actually David Webb - an ordinary citizen who was trapped in the web of a secret CIA operation.

The key is not to come up with some witty, telling name (like Boris Badenov), or a cliché symbolic name (like Raven), or a name that just describes their appearance (like naming someone Ebony because they have black hair). Instead, take it a step deeper and find ways to evoke certain feelings about your character with a subtle name that represents the heart of your character well. One writer who I think does a marvelous job with naming is Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games: Katniss Everdeen, Prim, Haymitch, Effie Trinket, Gale, President Snow. Each unique name has so much life and meaning behind it, without being in-your-face obvious.
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Right now I'm working on developing characters for a possible webcomic. The main character is a superhero, but she's also deeply troubled with multiple personality disorder (a result of the event that gave her superpowers), and she tries to cover up her fear and anger by becoming goth. I've decided to name her Sydney. Without giving too much away, she's edgy and modern, and now that she's goth, she goes by Syd.

So, one last thought: Why do you think God left it up to Adam to name the creatures of the earth? Why do they need names? Why didn't God just name them himself? What is so important about the names we assign to things?

5 comments:

Ashley said...

Great post!

We tend to create a more emotional bond to things when we name them. I imagine if we called the main character simply "the hero" it is very possibly we wouldn't feel any bond to our character either. I think God gave the job of naming the animals to Adam, so as to forge an emotional connection between him and the animals.

Galadriel said...

Have you read the parts about naming in The Time Quartet by Madeline L'Engle? It sets Naming as the opposite of Destruction.

Haili said...

I was so excited when I saw this post! I love naming! I think that was the reason I started writing when I was little- I ran out of dolls to name so I moved on to characters. I always look at the meaning of the name in a story. In my latest endeavor, a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, instead of naming the titular characters Belle and Beast, or worse, Beauty and Beast, I've named them Calista (which means beauty) and Damien (ironically means 'to tame')
My NaNoWriMo novel's main character was named Halyn Mugarson. Her mom calls her Lynnie, her dad calls her Hal. Mom wanted a Lyn, Dad wanted a Hal (boy), and that's how they came up with her name. It means 'special, unique, unlike any other' which is the exact opposite of how she feels. Her last name, Mugarson, comes from the name Muga, which means 'nothing' She got the name from her dad, and her dad is the one who makes her feel as if she's nothing. And now her name means 'special nothing' which is an oxymoron. But no one would get it unless I told them...

Adam means 'of the Earth' or 'man' (did you know that was the Beast's name in the Disney version? A little known trivia fact I've come across in my research for the retelling)
Naming is such a personal, intimate thing. When you name your kid, you're giving them the word by which they will be called for the rest of their lives. That's why people spend so much time figuring out what to name their babies. With characters, it's not quite so big of a deal, since they're not real people who have to deal with a name like 'If' in real life (I did name a character If, but in my defense, she named herself) You can change charater's names, but it's really hard to start thinking of them by their new name. I once changed a spelling from Allie to Ally and even that was hard for me to remember.

Ellyn said...

Great post, Evergreena! I don't really think about name meanings as often as I should because I make up a lot of the names, so they don't have specific meanings.

We did an exercise in the club once for how we naturally interpret names, from sound and what not. So I would say a name of one of my characters, and simply from the name, people would write down how they thought the character looked / acted. It was pretty fun, and helped me get "meanings" for my fantasy names.

Mia said...

I saw this today and instantly thought of this post:

http://hungernames.com/

Verrrry entertaining! x)