Characterization and Nomenclature:
What's in a name?
As an author, one of the most important tasks in writing a story is building a character. Every small trait that a writer leaves, builds, and hints at, draws a reader into the story and gives them an image of each character, be it protagonist, antagonist, or miscellaneous extra. However, many writers overlook one of the strongest traits that a character can have: a name. Nomenclature can be one of the most powerful assets that a writer has in their endless battle to build a lifelike character.
The uses of a name
The craft of literature is always at some level a decision-making process. While names need not always be used, there should always be a conscious decision that a writer makes about a name. When making a conscious decision, one must be able to list the benefits that the choice yields: if one names a character "Charles," they should also to some extent be able to explain why the character is named Charles. The same is true of the decision to have a name at all.
- Names and Heritage
Names draw subconscious images for readers. Whether a reader thinks about it or not, the name draws a rough outline of heritage, culture, and upbringing. Let's look at a few examples:
"Robert Jordan." (from the protagonist in "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (1).)
This name is a western name. From the etymology of "Robert," (from the Northern French pronunciation of the German name, "Hrodberht" (2) ) it is immediately deducible that the man has heritage in western Europe, and that his culture has had German and French influences, through cultural diffusion.
From the surname, "Jordan," (from the Hebrew name for the river, Jordan. (3)) we can conclude that his culture is heavily influenced by Abrahamic religions.
With the full name, "Robert Jordan," we can combine all of these elements to form a solid idea of his national origin. With the heavy western European influence and Abrahamic religion influence, we can conclude that his name comes from France or England.
Add in minute details about the time-setting and language (around World War 2 and he is a fluent English speaker), it is all but certain that he hails from what is now the United Kingdom, or from the United States or Canada.
Two words of nomenclature have placed a young man's heritage, culture, probable religion, and hint at his upbringing.
Here are some more examples of names that hint (or scream) at heritage or culture:
"Fernando Alejandro Javier Cortez"
- Names and Traits
Often times, a name will hint at a character's traits, and those traits will often be strong drivers in the plot of the story itself. For instance:
"Scout Finch" (from the protagonist of "To Kill a Mockingbird" (4).)
This name creates a basic set of traits that drive the character. "Scout," someone who explores unexplored territory, is her first name (5). It yields an image of someone who is inquisitive, an explorer by nature, and willing to proverbially peer under rocks that have never been moved. This proves true throughout the plot, where her lawyer father, Atticus, defends an African-American at a trial in times where prejudice and segregation reigns in the United States.
Surnames serve to characterize a family the same way that a first name characterizes the individual. Scout's last name, "Finch," is a small songbird (6). The comparison of her family as a group of good-natured songbirds is a main force throughout the novel. The family of finches proves over and again to mean no harm to anyone, a trait which is challenged over and over by the pervasive racism throughout the story.
- Names and Etymology
As in the overt traits that characterized Scout Finch and her family, names will often carry a trait, object, or job that they are derived from. These can also be driving traits in characterization, but are hidden from the reader's plain sight. Here are a couple examples of etymology of names:
"Aaron." means "mountain." (7)
"Eve." means "life." (8)
- Names and Allusion
Another way to endow a character with traits through their name is through the allusion to their role in a famous story or religion. Often, a character will take on the role that the alluded-to person did. Some examples of names with heavy allusion:
"Hercules" (and derivatives.)
- Names and Phonetics
Another trait that a name endows a character with, is some level of strength and power. The accents of syllables within a name create phonetic stress, that carries to the reader on a subconscious level. Monosyllabic words with longer vowel sounds tend to be very feminine, and carry with them the delicate nature of an archetypal female, and the perception of emotionality. Monosyllabic words with shorter, harder consonant sounds tend to the masculine side of the spectrum, and insinuate physical or mental strength, and the emotional structure of an archetypal male.
Multi-syllabic words have multiple stressed or unstressed syllables, and afford a greater range of stresses.
(Note that there is still some masculinity to the last example. This is a characteristic of male names, and ultimately a root of how the masculinity/femininity of names came about.)
(Note that while not always purely stressed or unstressed syllables, they carry harder or softer sounds, and that as with male/feminine/feminine, names, female/masculine/masculine names are uncommon, and psychologically avoided by parents when naming a child of the corresponding sex.)
- Commonness of Names
The familiarity of the audience with the names and surnames of a character can create an effect upon their view of the character. For example:
Familiar: "Jake Smith" (Smith is one of the most common surnames in the "English" speaking world, and "Jake" is a common first name.)
Unfamilliar: "Rhablergresh Subblepishkle" (It should be very unfamiliar, as I made it up.)
- Creating a Name
Armed with a basic knowledge of all the aforementioned topics, we can begin to form and create our own nomenclature for original characters, and even inanimate objects. The only limit to what can have an original name is what can be named. A few examples:
A quirky, masculine fellow: "Cranston Jackoby" (with troves of research-able possibilities.)
An elegant, treacherous disease: "The Ellistra Virus."
A failing reanimation researcher with a penchant for hi-jinks: "Lazarus "Lazlo" McGee"
A strong man who belongs to a strong family (physically or in character.) "Ethan Strong." ("Ethan" means "strong." (9))
A corporation of creative inventors that produces (or produced, or wanted to characterize their products as top of the line technology: "The Daedalus Corporation."
- To name, or not to name?
A common technique in literature is to remove a character's name so that a reader may put themselves in the positions of the character, and feel like part of the scene. The lack of a name altogether can be as powerful a force as a well-chosen name: they both reveal something about the character.
When creating a nameless character, the character is usually very generic in their physical description, and often times has no description at all. Lack of a name is one aspect of the greater idea of creating a faceless character, or a character that leaves their descriptions up to the reader. Faceless characters hope to force the reader to become that character.
Names are Important
Often, naming a character can be the hardest choice in the decision making process that is literature. Even more often, names are chosen without high regard for meaning, reason, and justification. Depending upon perspective, a name might be repeated over and over. This makes the construction of a name all the more important, because the reader encounters it more than any single other description of a character. A name might need to be repeated every few paragraphs to every few sentences.
One might not only have a name echo traits of a character, but play off the expectation that the trait creates. A harsh, masculine exterior can often fall away to reveal a vulnerable interior. Names can characterize families, and families create conflict, both internal and external. A woman named "Faith" need not be a woman of religion, or need to have any belief at all. However, every time the name is repeated, that association of confidence and trust returns to a reader's conscious. As with any artistic guideline, once the concepts are fully understood, they can be used or broken to create a desired effect. However, as with any technique, the user must ultimately be able to list the benefits of the act.
Names are a powerful force, and one that should be treated with as much care as any other detail about a character.