On writing: Naming characters

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
Romeo and Juliet, Act II Scene II

“What’s in a name,” indeed.

There are two main methods for naming characters. One is the name of significance. In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet argues that names are interchangeable and do not ultimately affect the nature of what is named. This runs contrary to the method of naming for significance.

An example of this is in the 2003 film Oldboy, which I saw for the first time last week. Oldboy (2003)The main character of Oldboy is named Oh Dae-su and, in an interview with director Park Chan-wook, Park stated “I named Oh Dae-su in Oldboy to remind the viewer of Oedipus. I was thinking of Greek myth or the classics.” In this case, Park deliberately uses the name to refer to the themes of incest, shame, and predestination from the myth of Oedipus. These same themes run through Oldboy, building upon one another as the film’s mysteries unfold. To me, the best part of this naming is that it is not an in-your-face reference, demanding attention from the viewer. Even as someone quite familiar with the myth of Oedipus, I did not realize the connection until I read up on the film afterwards.

The other method for naming characters is to name not for significance, but for an organic sound: a name that fits within the universe in which the story takes place. This is the method of naming for worldbuilding.

Perhaps the best example of this would be in science-fiction or fantasy storytelling. Black Sun Rising by C. S. FriedmanBecause these stories take place outside of our universe, outside of our references, often writers make up names that are also completely outside of this world, but which fit within the other world. To draw on a specific example, I will use C. S. Friedman’s The Coldfire Trilogy (1995), an old favorite of mine. In this series, you get names such as Damien Vryce, Gerald Tarrant, Senzei Reese, etc. These names are organic and fit within the world of the storytelling. But in significance to our own? There are very few, if any possible connections to make to these names, and any connections would be tenuous at best. This does not mean that these names are inherently worse because of their lack of analytic meaning. It means that they exist with a different purpose in mind―to build a real, breathing world―and they accomplish it well.

So how do I name characters? It is a mix between the two methods, as I think most writers tend to do.

Sometimes I name for significance, but the challenge that I find with that is getting too significant. As I noted with the subtle naming of Oh Dae-su, it is not a reference that jumps out and slaps you in the face with its significance. It is something that comes out later, and only to illuminate another level of meaning in the film. This is the subtlety I aspire to in naming for significance.

But naming for worldbuilding is a challenge for me as a writer as I find it difficult to create a natural-sounding name out of nowhere. I mean this, of course, in matching first and surnames. If I just have to give a character a first name or surname alone, it’s usually fine. Sounds great. But both? Now there’s where it starts to sound off to my mind.

To draw on examples from my recent novella, The Joining, Naomi Anderson was originally Naomi Sparrow. Naomi came from the actress Naomi Watts because I was desperate for a first name for my character and I was looking at my DVD collection at the time, which includes the 2002 remake of The Ring. Sparrow came from Mary Doria Russell’s 1996 novel The Sparrow (which I highly recommend and will write about further in another post). The Joining by J. H. DierkingSparrow was discarded though when I decided it is too much associated with Captain Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean fame. I used Anderson as a placeholder for a while, after thinking of Neo of The Matrix (1999),1 and after using it for so long, it just stuck.

Jim Watts is another character’s whose placeholder name eventually became his permanent name. I used Jim because it was the first thing that came to mind when I needed a first name. Watts came from, if you haven’t guessed by this point, Naomi Watts. In some ways, the halving of her name like that for the two characters seems fitting considering their arcs.

Alexander was originally named Kowalski, partially because it was the first name that came to mind, and then after I had thought of it more, partially in homage to the great Kowalskis of science-fiction: namely Kawalsky of Stargate (1994) / Stargate SG-1 (1997), Kowalski of Blade Runner (1982), and I could swear there’s more, but I can’t think of them right now.2 One of my first readers protested, saying the name is too much associated with meathead characters, such as mercenaries. From my own associations with Stargate and Blade Runner, I had to agree that it did not fit with the character I was trying to portray. Additionally, Alexander is a black woman, and a Polish surname seemed a bit unlikely. So I set about looking at lists of last names and settled on Alexander. This same reader told me that it would be associated with Alexander the Great, especially since Alexander is the leader of the mission. This was an unintentional association, though it might have crossed my mind at some point. But oh well: death of the author and all that. While I normally struggle with naming for meaning, I did not change it. For me, it worked on a level of significance that did not seem forced or overplayed.

In a final example, I will talk about the naming of Adam and Eve. Originally, Eve was named Tars as I tried to create an alien-sounding name. However, I could not come to a comfortable acceptance of the name: it never sounded right. So I decided on the names of Adam and Eve for the aliens, suggested as a joke by one of the humans to downplay the significance of a biblical allusion. However, there is still some intended significance with the names as Eve does offer Naomi a choice at the end of the novella.

But imagine my surprise when I saw Interstellar in theaters and it featured a robot named TARS and the name sounded so natural and organic for the characters to speak. Next time I will think a little more on my names and if they are fitting to the world of the story before I abandon them.

1. Since I mentioned it, much has been made of the significance of names in The Matrix.
2. I could count the recent Kowalski in Gravity (2014), but I named my character in The Joining, and changed the name, before the film was released. 

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