Names have always been important in my writing. I say time and time again that characters come to me first, and that usually starts with a name. (This does lead to many of my characters having similar names, which is…something I’m working on.) Add into this my time dabbling in Lyn Thorne-Alder’s world of Addergoole, where names (and Names) have extremely large meanings, I’ve spent more than my fair share of time on BehindtheName.com. I love delving into meanings, and making the meanings tie back to the characters to which they are attached.
But some of my favorites were off the cuff decisions. And the name of your character is infinitely important.
One of my absolute oldest characters in my personal repertoire has a name I’m fairly certain I chose because I liked the symbolism of it…and really no better reason. Her name is Jade Rivers, and she’s got one of the few names which hasn’t ever changed through the revision process.I never gave her name a lot of thought; I came up with it in probably my sophomore year of high school, and I liked that it was colors and water. I’m a simple child.
But I remember having a professional script reader/analyst read the draft (I’m still sorry about that; it was so bad) and one of his first notes to me was that he liked her name. Not necessarily for any reason, but that the name jumped out at him, and he thought that was important. And he’s the professional, so I listened to him.
As time went on, I started poking into character meanings. In a potential sequel to Jade’s story, I have a character named Aden–meaning “little fire.” Aden is short, red-headed, and an absolute spitfire. It’s her core personality trait–and I gave her a name to match it. (Her boyfriend is not so lucky. Tyler has a name I’ve cycled through too many different stories. I was glad to finally find him a home.) Sure, this is more subtle than Jade’s name, but it also has more meaning than Jade’s. Jade has green eyes. I think that’s the extent of how her name relates to her.
However, my favorite character name story is two-fold, and has to do with my main protagonist for the manuscript I talk about all the time, Alistair Clarimond, and his buddy Bantam Molloy from SON OF THE REVOLUTION. While Alistair’s last name has changed (giving a pseudo-vampire the last name Christian was perhaps a little much) his first name hasn’t. It wasn’t an active decision; he was created in a NaNoWriMo planning session, and I gave him a name I remembered liking. I’ve known I think one Alistair in my life, and I’ve been fascinated with the name ever since. Didn’t think anything of it. As for Bantam, I genuinely thought I just made it up. (Believe me or not, but I really did.)
Later, after someone asked me if I’d named Bantam for the type of rooster–since they’re both feisty bastards–I had to go look up Alistair. If Bantam had been so perfectly named and it had happened unintentionally, what about Alistair?
Sure enough, Alistair is derived from Alexander, which is “defender of mankind.” …given that what Alistair is doing is defending his people, it blew me away. I don’t know how I managed it, but those are two names I will never ever change.
But in the end, what anyone should be doing–should be striving to do–is to make your name memorable, to mean something. Not everyone has to be as direct as Alistair, but not everyone has to be as vague as Jade. They’re both good names, regardless of why I think that. Pulling a name out of thin air is fine, as long as you just need a placeholder. But I’m fairly certain that none of us got named what we did because our parents just drew it out of a hat.
(Fun side story: my birth name isn’t too far from that. My parents were not expecting their child to be the sex they got, so they had a totally different name picked out. My actual birth name was the only name of the appropriate sex they could agree on. I have of course rendered all of this moot since I go by Rion now 😉 but ah well.)
Treat each of your characters as a child. Give them a name that speaks to you, that can relate to. Fight for your character’s name if you have to. I’ve held my ground about a character name while a professor in my undergraduate program tried to tell me I’d spelled it wrong. (Yes. My teacher told me I’d spelled my own fictional character’s name wrong.) I’ve renamed characters several times over because the name never quite fit. Don’t settle. Don’t let your characters go loose in the world as placeholders. We are their scribes. They deserve our best.
Side note again: my pen name has meaning to me all the way through. K was my grandfather’s middle initial. No middle name, just the letter K. That’s stuck with me for ages, and so I adopted it–hence why there is no period after the K in my name. Orion has been my all-time favorite constellation since I was a very young child. Again, I’m not sure why, but I see him in the sky and I am instantly at peace. Fray is the last name of a fictional character my good friend Rich created: an agent in his story FLASHPOINT named Dolan Fray. Dolan has long been my favorite character in the whole series (and that’s saying something, given how much I love some of the others in there) and when I was creating the pen name, I told Rich I was going to steal Dolan’s name. He gave me permission, and I became K Orion Fray. It’s not much, but it speaks to who I am, all the way through. 🙂
So tell me: What’s your name?