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Criticism, Fiction, The Writer's Life

Would a Character by Any Other Name Sound as Sweet?

How do you name your characters?

I hate it when I see banal, run of the mill character names that read like they’ve been lifted from 1950s conformist literature. When I read an opening that starts like this: “Bill Edwards stopped before he entered the room,” my literary hackles rise instantly. I don’t like him. I don’t identify. Why choose such a bland, uninspired tag for a protagonist?[1]

To me, names like Bill Edwards, or Alice Reynolds, or John Nelson or a thousand others like them carry no meaning, no attributes other than to connect the characters to a whitewashed mainstream society completely lacking in individuality. And I’ll go as far as to say it shows little effort on the part of the writer to infuse the character with any personality or culture or meaning. Just give him any name, the writer must think; they’re all about the same.

So wrong.

I thought of this as I drafted a short story recently. I needed a companion for a field trip to the Amazon. Just a minor role, but the name needed to convey a sense of the place and purpose. To me that meant Hispanic in origin. The character would be highly educated and in charge of the expedition. Cartagena came to mind, perhaps because I once knew a man named Dan Cartagena, and he was like that. It certainly fit the first two requirements, and it seemed to impart a connection to the travel and science aspects of the trip, the “carta” half invoking cartography.

Readers, I believe, pick up on those things whether they are conscious of them or not.

Other writers often ask me why I choose the names I do. All I can say is I look for subtle meanings to help illuminate the themes of my stories:

A man who accidentally kills a famous writer, and then struggles with the religious and cultural implications of his involvement: Jonathan Pagán.

A troubled teen who shoots his abusive father and becomes a role model for another boy in a similar situation: Michael Gale.[2]

Too transparent? Au contrare, I don’t think writers do this enough.

My best names[3] I saved for my novel, Mr. Neutron. Without giving too much away, I can say the title character is a man who can’t catch a break, and seems to have no effect on situations no matter how hard he tries. After much deliberation, I settled on Gray Davenport. The “gray” part should be obvious. Davenport, most of you know, is another word for couch, which makes Gray Davenport a sofa of a man, someone to be sat upon by asses of all weights and sizes. Well, it is a satire, after all.

What are your favorite character names—both those you’ve invented and those you’ve read?

[1] And why intro the name before we get a sense of the story—but that’s another blog.

[2] Yes, definitely a ripoff of James Joyce’s Michael Furey in “The Dead.”

[3] IMHO, of course


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


17 thoughts on “Would a Character by Any Other Name Sound as Sweet?

  1. I feel mildly abashed to remember Buddy Alter, the self-help guru character in my first novel, and his daughter Cass, his main witness. Then again in my second novel, Mae Beacon is the starlet and Drew Andrew the bookish tagalong. Oh, come on, I tell myself. Did I really choose those names? It’s almost cheesy. And still, I can’t give them other names because those fit them so well.

    I hope that my naming abilities have become more subtle since then. There’s a fine, fine line between allusion and satire.

    Posted by girl in the hat | April 28, 2012, 3:59 PM
    • Mae Beacon, a shining star! And Drew Andrew almost sounds like he could be twins (Drew and Drew). Personally, I think Buddy Alter is pretty darn good–funny, but not too silly.

      One of my favorite uses of a name in literature is in Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen, who made a play on her own name to ID an enigmatic meteorologist, Dr. Tzvi Gal-Chen.

      Posted by jpon | April 28, 2012, 4:46 PM
  2. I love the naming of names. Sometimes, often in fact, a character name will drive a story. I have two stand-in names for “good guy” and “bad guy” in my stories that I use until their actual names are revealed to me: Clement and Malcolm.

    My favorite fictional character name? Updike’s, Rabbit Angstrom. He said he wanted a timid name, one that was insignificant. Rabbit for the shy creature and Angstrom for the tiny unit of measure.

    My favorite character name that I created? Wisson Berryboy, in “On the Chopshaw Road.” [Upcoming Short Story America Anthology.]

    Posted by Jon Zech | April 28, 2012, 4:39 PM
    • I think creating a unique name for a character (like Rabbit) really amps reader interest. Who wouldn’t want to know what happens to a guy named Rabbit?

      Or Wisson Berryboy, for that matter. (Although that was a sneaky way to get in some self-promotion.)

      Posted by jpon | April 28, 2012, 4:53 PM
  3. One of my favorite boyhood authors was James B. Hendryx, who wrote stories and novels about the turn of the 20th century Yukon gold rush period. The main setting of many of his tales was Halfaday Creek, a place straddling the Alaska/Canada border where outlaws lived with the option of moving at a moment’s notice to evade whichever particular sort of constabulary was seeking them. The main protagonist and sort of Robin Hood outlaw was named Black John Smith, so named because of his thick black beard. As other outlaws striving for anonymity straggled into camp, all claiming John Smith as a moniker, distinguishing personal traits were attached to each resident such as Long-Nosed John Smith, Pot-Gutted John Smith, One-Eyed John Smith, and so on. After the camp was chock full of just too many John Smith’s of varying physical characteristics, a system was devised where a “name can” was filled with US presidents Christian and surnames and newcomers were thusly labeled as Abraham Grant, Ulysses Harrison, etc.

    I always thought this a clever device implemented by Hendryx to name characters within the story line itself, and a name like Pot-Gutted John Smith does render a striking and memorable visual cue to flesh out the character, so to speak.

    Posted by socalsoxman | April 28, 2012, 5:16 PM
    • And that strategy is very much in tune with the times, and the origins of names. In medieval Europe, most people got their surnames based on what they did for a living. Other cultures, for example Native Americans, also named people based on appearance or deeds.

      Posted by jpon | April 29, 2012, 3:56 PM
  4. I really like Neil Gaiman’s Mr. Wednesday and Low-Key Lyesmith in American Gods. Yes, those names do tell a lot, but it would be hella spoilerish of me to detail how.

    Posted by arichaley | April 29, 2012, 2:05 AM
    • I’ll take your word for it, Aric. And thanks for not spoiling. I’m just about to start reading that book.

      Posted by jpon | April 29, 2012, 3:53 PM
      • That’s too cool. American Gods is one of my all-time-favorite-“we’re-not-worthy”-bow-down-and-kiss-the-author’s-feet sort of books. May not be that way for you (esp. after all that hype), but it blew me away. :)

        Posted by arichaley | April 30, 2012, 5:20 PM
  5. What a great post! I agree that Rabbit is a wonderful name for a character, and Ill admit I enjoying the names of the many many characters in the GAME OF thrones books. Tyrion Lannister, Cersei, and Eddard Stark (German for “strong”) are all awesome.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | April 29, 2012, 5:10 AM
    • Yes, I also like character names that use foreign words to imply meaning. They’re like little inside jokes.

      Posted by jpon | April 29, 2012, 3:52 PM
  6. A name is certainly more than just a name, the sound, the music, the look, what it conjures in the mind, its shape, all contribute to an image.

    Posted by Claire 'Word by Word' | April 29, 2012, 11:35 AM
    • And sometimes the subtle choices an author makes for a character’s name make a major difference in a story by invoking the aspects you mentioned. Thanks for your comment.

      Posted by jpon | April 29, 2012, 3:51 PM
  7. Hmm, I can see I’ve got some work to do in this area.

    Posted by Averil Dean | April 30, 2012, 2:22 PM
    • Considering the incredible speed with which you landed an agent (and not just any agent!), I don’t think you need to be concerned.

      Posted by jpon | April 30, 2012, 2:43 PM
  8. Science fiction presents some special difficulties with naming characters, especially the big sprawling sagas. You not only need good names, but names within each group ought to follow some set of rules distinguishable from the rules that pertain to each other group’s set of names.

    Despite a few notably well-named characters, GRRMartin quite bad at it, and acknowledges it. His frequent ineptitude with naming characters pulled me out of the GoT narrative experience more than once — that’s the ultimate problem, and that’s why naming characters is, as you say, Joe, a truly important element in an author’s skill set.

    By way of contrast. Tolkien, a linguist by training, is marvelously good at it. You might forget who a character in Tolkien is, but when you hear his or her name, you can tell immediately whether its a hobbit, a dwarf, a man or an elf — and even what type of elf, or where the man is from. In GoT, you can tell a Dothraki by his/her name, but after that? Good luck.

    And whatever you think of JKRowling’s abilities as a writer, she is marvelously, fantastically adept at naming characters. She’s so good it was actually a joy for me as a reader to meet a new character.

    Sci-Fi is the extreme example, but the pitfalls are common to all literature. Even in naturalistic novels, I’ve come across authors trying to present characters as belonging to some group or other (ethnic, religious, whatever) and simply made up a name that they thought sounded right — but didn’t. Naming a German or an Indonesian with some nonsense string of syllables that would never appear in the speech of those cultures is simply sloppy, and it pulls readers out of the narrative. Good if you get it right, bonus if you get it right and find something appropriate for the character.

    Posted by Brian Santo | May 2, 2012, 6:30 PM
    • Good point. It’s hard to beat Ford Prefect and Zaphod Beeblebrox, after all. I need to figure out a story where I can use the name Zafu Zabuton.

      Posted by arichaley | May 5, 2012, 1:33 AM

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