Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Rose by any other name...

"I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I've never been able to believe it. I don't believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage."
-Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables

Anne Shirley, as is usually the case, was quite right. Called skunk cabbage...or gutter weed, perhaps...I hardly think the noble rose would have risen (forgive the grammar pun) to its status as the preferred flower of lovers, mothers, and friends throughout the world.

I daresay that this applies to characters as well. Could we have loved Miss Anne-with-an-E Shirley quite so well if her name was Helga Humperdink? Of course we all put due attention into naming our primary characters. Probably most of you have a Baby Names Book—or at least a webpage saved to your favorites—just for the purpose of finding the perfect thing to call your protagonist.

But do you put that much effort into your secondary, or even tertiary, characters?

I know I haven't. I recently had a critique partner laughingly point out that quite by accident we had given two sets of out secondaries the same French names (without having read the others' stories yet). I had to admit that, on my part, almost no thought had gone into the names; I'd chosen the first French names with unique endings (so that all my characters wouldn't sound too similar) that my imagination had struck upon. Now there were a few other names of which I was exceedingly proud: the bright-natured boy named Blaise, for example, or the prayerful nun named Madeleine—a little more obscure, perhaps, but carefully chosen as it is derived from Mary Magdalene, the woman of the new testament remembered for choosing a life of contemplation. Compared to that, my Jacques and Henri made me feel rather sheepish.

Mr. Bumble
The “greats” would never have allowed such thoughtlessness to creep into their stories. Was ever there a Dickens' name which didn't instantly give you a clue as to the person you were about to encounter? Think of Oliver Twist's Mr. Bumble or Mrs. Sowerberry...or A Tale of Two Cities' Madame Defarge... Or take J. M. Barrie's names for the lost boys in Peter Pan: Slightly. Much. Even Wendy was a name Barry created—but what else could that spirited heroine have been called? And in a discussion on perfect names, we couldn't neglect J. K. Rowling, whose cast of characters was so large that Jim Dale, when he recorded the audiobooks, twice won himself a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for creating the most character voices for a single book: 136 for Order of the Phoenix and 142 for Deathly Hallows! Can you imagine writing half that many into a story? Yet no one will ever confuse Mundungus Fletcher for Xenophilius Lovegood, or forget which small role either of them played. These are tertiary characters! They never change, they hardly surprise us. But Rowling didn't allow herself—couldn't allow herself—to use the first names she happened upon. We would have got her hundreds of characters muddled up and lost interest in the story.

I've been to several author events where the question is asked, “How do you name your characters?” The authors, depending on their moods and temperaments, have varied in their answers. Suzanne Collins gave an enthusiastic explanation, Rick Riordan shrugged his shoulders—but Gail Carson Levine gave the best answer: she laughed and said, “That's like asking someone how they name their children.”

Because of course it's different for everyone. A Mr. Bumble would seem rather out of place in Because of Winn-Dixie, and likewise the wonderfully named India Opal Bologna would stick out like a sore thumb at Hogwarts. You have to choose names that mean something to you—even if no one else ever catches on. But they'll seem right—if they really are chosen, not stumbled upon.

I'd love to hear your take on this... What are your favorite character names? Which of your own character names are you most proud of?


  1. wow! This is a very well written post! Love that Anne of Green Gables quote.
    I don't spend as much time on character names I as should. But I'm probably most proud of the main lead dog in my ms ICE DOGS - BEAN. I had planned on naming a dog in my kennel Bean. But none of my pups seemed to suit it.

  2. Names are hugely important. I love how each one fits the characters so well in the HP books. I give great thought to my characters and sometimes I cannot start a story until I have the right name, even if I have the plot. In the novel I'm currently working on, during revisions, I changed the MC's name to Rebecca (it means bound/tied) and even the voice is better. Readers don't have to know this fact, nor my MC, but it keeps my focus. Yeah, names matter a lot and I love Gail's quote.

    It really is a pity that I have to write a whole book to figure out what it is I'm really writing about ... but that's what revisions are for. Who knows what other insights I'll get? Many, I'm sure.

  3. You're right. I don't give as much thought to my secondary characters. Your post has given me much to ponder. Thanks.

    As for how I pick my names, I think about how they sound. Soft or hard. For example, I love the way Potter sounded in my head on Snape's lips.

    Great post, Faith, as always.

  4. What a cute post! I'm ashamed to admit I usually just name my characters (even my main characters) the first name that comes to mind. I sometimes change the names in later drafts, but not often. I guess I'm just a lazy namer!

  5. Ohh man, I guess I should be paying more attention to names in general! All of my characters are Indian so I just gave them my favorite Indian names. You're so right that the names can influence a lot. I love the quote from Anne of Green Gables! One of my favorites.

    P.S. My favorite character name is Snape. It almost sounded like "Snake" but that single syllable was enough to convey something mysterious to me.

  6. Because I write fantasy, I have great fun making up names, but it is difficult to make sure they're not too strange, that they all seem to fit the world they're in (ie they all look to be from the same language) and to make sure that no two names are too similar, because then they're just confusing. I usually end up changing some names two or three times before I'm satisfied.

  7. Ahh, Anne. I love Anne. :) And I absolutely LOVE coming up with names for my characters. I think my favorite name I came up with was a faery prince named Valerian. It just sounds so regal (and it's a flower/herb, so it works well for a faery).

  8. Oh! Fun post! And you write so well--it really shows. :)

    Names DO matter. How they sound, what they mean, and how they feel to us, the writers.

    J.K. Rowling is amazing with that cast of characters she created and named. So impressive!

  9. My take on names? I say “Never judge a book by it cover” If a rose smelled like Skunk cabbage and skunk cabbage smelled like a rose…I’d rather have the bouquet of Skunk cabbage regardless of it’s name. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…” It’s all in the perspective I think.
    Do you know who Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs is?
    That the real name of "The Wizard of OZ".