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The Importance of Character Names

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The Zeppo

Joined: 09 Nov 2006
Posts: 713
Location: Alberta Canada

PostPosted: Tue May 29, 2007 7:01 am
Post subject: The Importance of Character Names
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BWFoster78 wrote:
Not to hijack the thread or anything, but this question seemed to fit.

How important are character names?

I've thought about writing a book for some time, and my biggest stumbling block (besides just sitting down and doing the actual writing, of course :) ) is coming up with character names.

I know that Mr Foster doesn't have the tenure needed to post on the the workshop's board, but I think that this is a great question to explore. Please feel free to add your 2 cents to BWFoster78's query
"The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply..unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments..we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers
-M. S. Peck
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Silky Smooth Since Seventeen

Joined: 24 Nov 2006
Posts: 235
Location: Minnesota, USA

PostPosted: Thu Oct 25, 2007 3:07 pm
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Ok, I'm a little behind the times (this topic has been sitting idle for what, 5 months?) but my interest has been piqued.

Character names can be variably important or irrelevant. It all depends on the mood of the piece and how big of a issue the author wishes to make. I say "Frodo" we all see something familiar but what if Tolkien had named him "Yvertheg"? The rest of the story, the character, the motivation, all of that remains the same but the protagonist's name changes. Then we hear "Frodo" and it seems plain silly. We hear Yvertheg and we see an epic journey to a fiery mountain, giant spiders, dark figures, hairy feet and an overweight gardener. In Tolkien's work--as with most fantasy--the name is relatively meaningless, save the for the meaning imparted on the name by the author, the story, and the reader(s).

Or for another example, imagine "James Wright and the Sorcerer's Stone"...

On the other hand an author can use the sound of a name to imply certain characteristics of the character. So called "harsh" sounds are common in the more villainous characters as they have some quality to them that causes people who hear those sounds together feel naturally uneasy. Think of these names and their commonalities: Iuz, Vecna, Strahd, Zhengyi, Sauron, Lex, Rumpelstiltskin, Voldemort, Slytherin, Snape (use of this one was brilliant...I'll talk about that in bit), Xerxes (might be cheating with his one, since he was historical)...the list goes on. The softest names there are probably Sauron and Strahd, but both begin with the slightly creepy voiceless alveolar fricative (s) reminiscent of reptilian hissing or scales sliding against eachother. The others all have sibilant variations or other sharp fricative sounds (v, z, s, x) or dorsal plosives (k, g, etc).

Regarding "Snape":

Here, is a good example of an author using a name to prey on the reader's preconceptions and attempt to have the reader draw certain conclusions before much of anything is revealed about the character. In book one of the series, Harry (and most readers) are utterly convinced Snape is a "bad guy" and this notion is made easier and more believable by the sound of the name and its similarities to "snake." If the character had been named something more gentle, say "Hamomil", it would have been marginally more difficult to convince the reader that he was a bad guy from the start.

Another way to make a character name important in to look at the literal meaning of the name (or add a meaning to the name). This way you can impart part of the character's personality or purpose to the name itself. The name Trenner, for example, may be a hint that this character will teach something to others (trenner = trainer). The name "Eric" can be a hint that the character is, or will be, a king (E+ric = Ever/Eternal + King). Tolkien combined this method with the phonological method (described above...and not surprising as J.R.R. Tolkien was a phonologist by trade) throughout much of the LotR series and his histories/mythologies of Middle Earth. He would create a name that sounds right for the character and figure out how to make it fit a meaning that describes the character.

Then we have cases where the name is so irrelevant that the character doesn't have one. The Amnesiac Hero from the game "Torent" is such as example. Another is The Doctor from "Doctor Who". Although, in the later case, one could argue that "The Doctor" is name enough and describes much about the character being "The Doctor of Everything".

In any case, the name is as important as you want it to be. :-)


    • khel (Fl.)>dr. (O.Fl) “khệr” > (FG) > “khyn” –“king” (Cf. servant, knight, kin) [(FG) “kuin” “servant”, “kyin” “kin, cousin” , “kện” “blood”]
    • tan (Fl.)> dr. (O.Fl) “ton” > (FG) >”tr-l” “eternal, forever, immortal”

"In omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro"
-Thomas a Kempis
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Joined: 26 Mar 2008
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Location: England

PostPosted: Thu Mar 27, 2008 4:15 pm
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Kheltan, thanks for the advice you have listed here. I know this is an old post, but i felt i should thank you. I am writing myself and this has been a problem for me. Names are very difficult to think of. I have very big problems with names of towns and cities. I seem to use road names and mixtures of road names. weird i know but it's all i have at the mo.
well thanks again.

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 13, 2008 3:29 pm
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Again this post has been Idle for several months... but im new so I will add my input. When I am reading a book, I like the names to roll off of my tounge, if names are too far fetched, while I am reading I find my self contemplating exactly how weird names are pronounced every single time I read the name, maybe thats just OCD, but I find it distracting
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PostPosted: Wed Aug 04, 2010 2:24 pm
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Naming characters has been equally hard for me. I tend to like Gaelic and Latin sounding names, so to make it easier I borrowed a lot from them. To me a characters name is imortant because it has to mean something to me...something about who they are. It helps me to keep track of their motivations and personalities. I still cannot find a name that I like for my main character. Have tried on several that didn't seem to fit.
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Joined: 30 Jun 2008
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PostPosted: Fri Aug 06, 2010 4:50 am
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Some people say that wierd, hard to pronounce names don't belong in stories. I say foo! The odder, the better. I also am a big fan of the name of the character having a specific purpose. Perhaps it is to describe what they are like, or perhaps the description is a contradiction to their essence. Or maybe their names are so odd that it's cause for childhood bullying. Any way you flip the coin, names matter. Poorly named characters offend my delicate raveny senses.
“To die would be an awfully big adventure.”
― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
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