What’s in a Name?

“The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter, It isn’t just one of your holiday games.” The line is the first in the opening poem of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. It’s a line that comes to mind every time I read a thread or a post or a tweet on character naming.

Names matter, and writers are more than aware of that. Names have a power of their own. They have personality. For instance, in The Lord of the Rings we have Sam. Sam the nice guy, the reliable one. Sam the dependable. I’ve seen plenty of Sams in plenty of books and they’ve mostly been good guys. It’s a good-guy name.

Writers spend an awful lot of time naming characters. In fantasy or science fiction, it’s even more complicated. Are your characters seafaring warriors? Are they farm folk from rich vales and rolling hills? Do you have orcs, or fae, or an entire planet of purple humanoid space pirates? It all has to be taken into account. Also, now I really want to write a story about purple space pirates.

And so writers turn to baby naming apps, databases on Celtic lore, wiki lists of Egyptian gods. We attempt to make sense of our story worlds – be they the fifth planet in a galaxy far away, or real-world Los Angeles – and we try to find names that fit both the setting and the complex characters we’re designing in our heads.

Some writers use generic placehold names and substitute them later, once they have more of a feel for the story. I can’t do that. I need that perfect name to fit a budding character, and then I build the character upon the name. Name and personality, they go hand in hand.

Sometimes I need to change a name while I’m writing. Perhaps two characters look too similar on the page, and it’s getting confusing. The minute I do, though, the story shifts. Maybe only a tiny bit, but enough. A mellow character grows barbs, an edgy character softens. It’s tricky, renaming an imaginary creation.

Other times, it’s the character that changes halfway through the story. This one is more common, I admit. After all, in a first draft, I’m still getting to know my people. As I progress, they grow stronger, more sure of themselves. And, once in a while, they outgrow a name. I just spent two entire days agonizing over a necessary name change. I think I’ve found an alternative I like, but I spent so long with the other name that now I need time to roll this one across my tongue and make it truly my character’s.

I’ve always loved names, and writing gives me an outlet to play around with them. I keep notes on cool names I spot, so I can use them later on. I hoard them on my phone among the book recommendations and to-do lists. Naming characters is fun, and hard, and exciting, and a little heartbreaking at times. But it’s an essential part of the process.

We all know Shakespeare’s famous quote from Romeo and Juliet. However, when you’re writing a story, one name is definitely not as sweet as another. The right name can make a character flourish, and lead us in exactly the direction we want. The right name is just right.

And now excuse me, I’m off to figure out some names for my purple space pirates.

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