What’s in a name?

StarbucksAs you may have noticed, I have an unusual spelling of the name Graham: it is in fact a Scottish spelling. This was never a problem for me when I lived in the UK where this spelling is almost as common as the usual form, but since coming to the US it’s been a constant battle spelling my name or listening to people butcher it. It’s actually humorous watching people read my name from a piece of paper, and wrestle with it in their mind, trying to figure out how to pronounce it. I never mind if people get it wrong, I just smile and enlighten them. It’s not their fault.

About a month ago, while picking up my favorite beverage at Starbucks, I decided to start a new game. I’d seen so many different spellings of my name on the cup, that I set out to collect the variations. I’ll reveal the results of my experiment at the end of this post, so if you can’t wait just scroll down and look at the picture.

This got me thinking about names in general and particularly names in books. Why are characters named the way they are? Why are some names distinctive and legendary, while others are forgotten a month or two after reading. It is possible that many authors just pick the first name that comes into their head, but I suspect that most are chosen with great care.

Contemporary fiction is easy, almost any modern name will do, be it Mary, Peter, Jonathan, Jon or even more exotic names like Jebediah. Typically the author picks names relevant to the culture of the character concerned or of the book as a whole, such as American names, Chinese names, or Viking names. This sort of naming is obvious and very easy for the reader to accept and think little of, until the rules change. If you’re reading a book set in contemporary America with characters such as Amy, James and Brian, the moment Mustafa enters the scene the readers mind goes to work. This can work for or against the author. Some writers purposely avoid names that offer symbolical or hidden meanings, so that the reader comes at the character with a clean slate, much as we do when we see an unknown actor in a movie. Sometimes the writer just likes the sound of the name. Other writers will choose a name precisely because it conjures an image.  Such stereotyping is common and saves the writer a lot of work. Luke Skywalker sounds heroic, Jar Jar Binks sounds humorous, Darth Vader sounds ominous.

The most common reason for choosing a name is to fit the genre. Galadriel conjures the image of a gorgeous elf Queen. Fantasy names are normally made up to sound magical. Meeting Joan in Lothlorien just doesn’t have the same impact. In historical fiction aristocrats typically go by the moniker of Miss Haversham, Duke Wandsworth or Bertie Wooster, or double-barreled names like Wellington-Smythe or Campbell-Black, while commoners are often named for their trade such as Bob Carter, or William Tanner. What sort of character do you expect when you come across Basher and Bert? What genre do you think of if I list the names Black Lotus, Sly Dragon, Black Widow and Gray Shadow? Or Captain America, Superman or Wonder Woman? Which is the prostitute, Molly or Emily?

Careful selection of names add to the authenticity of the book, and poor choices can be disastrous. There used to be a trend in science fiction for alien names that were totally unpronounceable with lots of K’s and Y’s and apostrophes, like Klak’Lk’Krazzj. Thankfully we seem to have grown out of this! The author must follow through on his choice of names, since the reader is likely to be confused should the character named Mae Fairweather turned out to be the heinous villain at the end, unless this is part of the plot twist of course.

Names can be used as a plot device too. Imagine a story about a character called Alex where the reader doesn’t find out the gender of the character until the end of the book. That could be clever. Some characters don’t have real names at all, and are just known as captain or doctor. This too can be a plot device: not knowing the real name of Dr. Who makes him more mysterious. JK Rowling was careful to give her real-world characters conventional names, like Harry, and use more fantastical names for the characters associated with the magical world, such as Hagrid. Alliterations in names go in and out of vogue, like Bilbo Baggins or Severus Snape, and roll off the tongue nicely.

In my book Ocean of Dust, I wanted the kids names to be familiar and innocent, like Lissa, Alice and Pete, while the sailors bore rougher names, like Grad, Farq and Jancid. I kept my names short, as if they could be nicknames or shortenings of their true names. The cook is simply known as Cook, while we never hear the Captain’s real name until the end. Farq sounds like a villain (hopefully!), while I thought Lyndon sounded more stuck up, more slimy, than Pete. My favorite fantasy names are those that sound almost Earthly and familiar, yet with a fantasy twist.

Here are a couple of articles I recently read on this subject: Naming Fictional Characters, The 7 Rules of Picking Names.

As promised, here is a collection of names courtesy of the wonderful baristas at Starbucks:


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