What’s in a name?

Should fictional characters look and act like their names?  Do  people’s actions create opinions about their names? Or do the names make the person?

When I was in grade school, I had two friends, Beverly and Virginia.  One was tall and slim with long silky dark hair and the other was shorter and stockier with curly short hair and a more boisterous disposition.  To this day, I think their parents should have swapped names because Virginia fit the tall friend better than Beverly and Beverly fit the short friend better than Virginia.  Why did I think that?  Was it based on other Virginia’s and Beverly’s I had met or fictional characters I had read about?

If you watch The Office television show on NBC, one of the main foils in the show is Dwight Schrute.  I don’t think I’ve ever known a Dwight, not closely enough to remember anyway.  The image I get in my head is of Dwight D. Eisenhower, a balding white-haired military man and President.  You couldn’t pay me to name any son of mine Dwight.  Sorry, that’s just the way it is.  So for the show The Office, Dwight is aptly named.

My sister was given a name in the 60’s that was then considered rather lovely, although very hard to spell.  Today “Sylvia” is considered an old lady’s name and very unpopular.  Even though I grew up with her and called her Sylvia all my life (well not totally true–we adopted a derivative nickname for her early on), she doesn’t seem like a Sylvia.  (Of course, she’d probably say that I don’t seem like a “Claire” and she’d be right since it is a pen name afterall.)

So what does all this mean in fiction?  If we have a free-spirited character, should we name her Daphne and not Gilda?  What if the reason she is so free spirited is because her name was Gilda and she rebelled against the stereotype?  In my mother’s day, Gilda was a hot name, perhaps because of the movie of the same name that starred Rita Hayworth, the sex bomb of the time, in a femme fatale role.  My generation is more likely to think of Gilda Radner, the very talented comedienne of SNL fame in the 70’s.  I have no idea what the generation after mine thinks of that name.

As a writer, how do we choose our character’s names?  Do we envision what their parents must have been like and therefore what name they would have chosen?  Or do we pick a currently popular or personal favorite name for our protagonist?   To be honest, I never thought that much about it.  A name popped into my head and I ran with it.  I resigned myself to the randomness of the choice and decided that perhaps there was something otherworldly, as if the character herself or himself had drawn me close and whispered it in my ear.  I could no more dispute and change it than I could my own name.

So it’s always a little amusing to me when people who read my stories tell me they don’t like the name.  My husband had an issue with the name “Guy” that I plucked out of the air for a flash fiction story.  My writing partner didn’t like “Gayle” so I renamed my character “Gwen” because it had to be a hard “G” name.  “Why a G?” she asked.  I couldn’t tell her.  I had no rational explanation other than that’s how it was.  Maybe names beginning with a hard G sound bother everyone but me?  I may switch it back to Gayle or I may leave it Gwen.  I still think the character is Gayle in my head but she’s told me she doesn’t mind using a pen name while I’m fleshing out her world, fixing plot flaws, bad grammar and punctuation mistakes.  Good woman, Gayle, er I mean Gwen.

3 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. Hi Claire, SilverBirch in disguise here. I had to comment because I always thought I was the only person who chose/found character names based on sounds!

    For me, I guess it’s as though something of the character’s personality comes out through the sounds (the feisty protagonist of my first novel needed a name with strong consonants like R or D, and became Darklis, whereas her more timid, calmer sister’s name had to be softer in sound). Several of my male protagonists (who have been bugging me lately to write their stories already!) seemed to call for strong, one-syllable names. But sometimes my characters are contrary – like the cynical, extremely jaded, hard-ass female protagonist of a WIP whose name is Celine, a surprisingly soft, lyrical name (in my mind, at least. I’m sure not everyone would agree!)

    I think this is the most thought I’ve ever given my naming process. Generally, the right name comes to me and I just go with it. I try to avoid using popular or fashionable names, at least in contemporary stories (I went to high school with so many Jennifers and Jessicas to go down that route!) And as far as the name Gilda, I’m afraid Gilda Radner is the only Gilda I know of both in the celebrity world and my own. And yes, she was of course a brilliant comedienne 😉

    • Hiya, Silver! Thanks for dropping by.

      Yeah, so many different approaches to picking names. One of the beauties of word processing programs is the ability to do a global search and replace. Maybe that’s why I don’t spend much time agonizing over names.

  2. Pingback: 30 Days of Writing–Day 3: Names « Claire Gillian

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