Names are important. Sometimes they just identify things and there’s a simple relationship between the signified (i.e. the thing being named) and the signifier (i.e. the name itself). Often, however, names do not merely identify things, telling us that A is different from B: often, names tell us something about the nature of the thing they’re naming.
In fiction, it’s rarely enough to name things in order to distinguish them. Names shouldn’t just help us tell characters and places (among other things) apart, but should also convey something further to us. Careful naming is an opportunity to give readers information without telling them anything beyond the name: it can be a great way to info-dump without anyone realising that’s what you’re doing.
Sometimes this can go too far: recently, there was a dreadful murder mystery episode on TV where a character took on a name meaning the same as the phrase he scribbled every time he committed a murder. The trouble with this is the ‘spelling it out bit’ necessary for the revelation of whodunit to work. Why is this a problem, you might ask? Well, in my mind, this approach to naming is by way of making an in joke. The minute you spell the joke out, it becomes both (a) not at all funny and (b) not very clever. A really clever in joke reveals itself, rather than requiring the author to step in.
If you’re writing parody or comedy, then silly names are de rigeur. Or they should be. Who doesn’t like good old PC Plod or (my ten-year old attempt) Detective Inga Vestiggatin. (You are allowed to groan here, but do remember I was only ten.)
Now, I’m not arguing that all names should have a ‘translation’ that tells you something about the character and/or their fate in the story, just that names need to fit: the key connotations should feel natural and appropriate. I would find it very hard to suspend disbelief if, in an action flick that took itself seriously (always a bad thing to begin with), the superhero were called Hubert. Similarly, I would take issue with a modern teenage beauty in a work of serious literary fiction being called Griselda. Each to their own, but I, as a reader, would find the name a terrible mismatch. The writer would have to do a lot of convincing before I imagined a pretty eighteen-year-old each time I saw the name.
Now, obviously books can make new ‘matches’, creating new connotation. But I think the Griselda one would be a real uphill battle. ‘Hermione’ as a nickname for someone clever but not stereotypically pretty makes sense on the basic snap-judgement level we tend to react to names on.
Finding the right name can be really hard. The Wordsworth Dictionary of First Names and the Wordsworth Dictionary of Surnames are both excellent places to start, but they are pretty Anglo-centric. Even if your character’s family has lived in the UK or the USA for generations, they may well have immigrated there at some stage and brought with them a tradition for, say, Italian names or Iranian ones. A little research will help identify some options (e.g. for Italian names), but it won’t necessarily tell you what connotations attach to those names in the language/culture they originated from. That isn’t always a problem if the vast majority of your readers are unlikely to know these connotations, but it is something to consider in terms of doing your research ‘due diligence’ for your own satisfaction.
Sometimes it is the sound of a name that is important. Often this is the case for names that are foreign to the writer and/or the majority of readers. Sometimes what matters is that major historical figures have carried the name: Elizabeth raises a wealth of connotations. Conversely, Benito was a very popular name among the completely apolitical farming communities of northern Italy until Mussolini came along. Sometimes the connotations are to do with other books or TV shows or movies… The key thing to think about is what most readers will associate with the name. Remember to distance yourself from purely personal associations if they are likely to be at odds with what most readers think and feel about a particular name. Unless it doesn’t matter if most readers don’t get the joke. It’s fine to leave in a few little things that you, your closest friends and family will spot, but no one else will bat any eye at.
So, the message is that names are important. Take the time to get it right. You’ll know when you’re there. Conversely, if a name makes you want to itch (I sometimes literally get the scritches when I can’t find the right name for a character), then stop and fix it. This doesn’t have to be during your first draft, but it should probably be by the time you’ve finished your second. If you don’t believe fully in your characters because they have the wrong names, then how will the reader manage?
This applies to everything in your story world that has a name. It’s one of the things that makes writing fantasy and sci-fi so hard. Conversely, it’s one of the few easy things about writing historical fiction.
My last words of advice: remember that other people may well be able to help with names. Just don’t be too proud to ask and to accept suggestions if they’re good. Also, if you’re really bad at names, it’s worth thinking about what genre is going to suit you best as a writer. Because names really do matter and, unlike with titles, your agent/editor is probably not going to offer to rewrite them all if your efforts stink.
All that said, I find names really, really hard to get right. I’m getting better at finding the right names – and finding them quicker – as I become more experienced, but it’s still one of the things I struggle with. Titles are a real issue for me. But more on that another time.
Any tips of books of names or how you find names for your characters/places?