What’s in a Name?

August 9, 2010

This young lady's name is Jenny Jones - can you guess why?

One part of writing that very few stories let you escape, and which I (and I believe many writers with me) often dread and try to put off, sometimes until it gets ridiculous, is naming the characters. Now, some of them seem to come with a name, and some are the kind of people for whom any old name will fit like a glove, but a lot of the time, naming characters is a lot of work. Naming them well is a little more work yet, and something that it sometimes seems like furry writers have more problems with than most.

The first thing that applies, regardless of how you choose your names, is consistency. I once read a very good essay on the topic, but I don’t seem able to locate it again. The main point there is that you have to keep in mind that someone named this character, as a child, and that someone didn’t exist in a vaccuum. The same small village is unlikely to be the birthplace of both John Doe and Drizzt Do’Urden, especially not if both children’s parents were born and bred in the village, and maybe also their parents before them. In some settings this is something that should receive world-wide consideration; in a column on The Guardian‘s website, Imogen Russel Williams criticizes Terry Goodkind for a poor choice of name for the protagonist of his Sword of Truth series, just because of that name’s incongruity with the rest of the setting. [1]

Now, there are several ways you can approach choosing a name for a character; sometimes you need to take your setting and/or your character’s culture into account when deciding which method is most appropriate for you, but that’s something you, as the writer, will know better than I. Still, the setting and culture in some way determine the first choice in a line of choices: do you pick a name at random (characters’ parents sat down with a book of baby names and picked ones they liked the sound of, with little to no regard to the name’s meaning), or do you want a name with meaning? Arguably, characters named after, say, a grandparent fall somewhere in between; their name has meaning to their immediate family, but it doesn’t need to be a name that will invoke anything to the reader, which is what I primarily am looking at when it comes to names with a meaning.

The kind of meaningful name that is probably the least work is simply sitting down with a half-decent baby name website and searching either names you like to find one that has a somewhat appropriate meaning, or searching meaning keywords until you find a name you can live with. This is usually a step in my naming my MUCK characters, though often I have some vague idea of what I’d like the name’s origin to be, as well. This may be what comes in the most handy to writers whose work is set in modern-day worlds which differ comparably little from the world we live in. After all, there may well be people named Legolas, Eowyn, Drizzt or Moon Child in our mundane world, but chances are their parents are hopeless nerds or hippies.

In the setting of Robin Hobb’s The Farseer trilogy, meaningful names are the priviledge of the royal family. They alone are given names which tradition has it will shape their future behavior and personality. [2] A descendant of the first king whose name is Humble can thus be expected to show humility. In Hobb’s case, these names seem to, to some extent, operate by “be careful what you wish for”; while most of the characters show the traits they’re named for, they often do so with a bitter aftertaste. This is almost in the tradition of Charles Dickens, whose writing includes quite a few characters whose names are evocative of some aspect of their personality or nature. This can be a very effective method of naming characters, but it can sometimes come off as too symbolic; Williams observes that with a name like that, J. K. Rowling’s “Draco Malfoy never stood a chance”. [1] By all means, do use this method of naming if it appeals to you, but proceed with caution — it may be best suited to seemingly “simple” tales.

I personally have used what may be a rather cruel twist on Hobb’s naming scheme on a character of mine created for the World Tree role-playing game, whom I journal for as “Stickseed”. The game’s rulebook describes the Herethroy (bug-people) names in actual everyday use as: [3]

Herethroy nicknames tend to be simple. Many are descriptive. Redspot probably has a prominent red spot on zir carapace. For variety, these nicknames may be given in different World Tree languages, which in this book are translated into different terrestrial languages: Arconegro (black curve), Mainvert (green hand), Braithdu (speckled black). Nondescriptive names tend to be herbal: Treeset, Greenswire, Eyebright.

The name Stickseed (nickname, really; the species has long and complicated names that are rarely really used, so for all sensible purposes, the nickname is the only name a player character is going to have in practise) was self-chosen, evocative of her desire to stick to her convictions however much it may be a thorn in her conspecifics’ eyes, much like a burr. Before leaving her home village, she was instead known as Greengrass; it’s a reminder from her parents that she is a nobody, just like green grass is nothing to take note of. A sort of twisted memento mori; “remember your inferiority.”

Which brings me to the next, related, class of meaningful names, and the one where, in my experience, most aspiring furry writers stumble. Names based on physical apperance. At a glance, these seem to be pretty simple; just stick together a descriptive name, right?


What I see far too many writers fail to take into account is that names based on appearance should be based on something that is distinctive about the individual. Let’s say you have a fox character named Red. Now, what reasons could his parents have had for giving him that name? There are a few possibilities:

  • Red was adopted by, say, a pack of wolves as an infant, so his typical-fox rust-reddish fur was actually distinctive to his “parents”.
  • Red’s fur isn’t just usual fox red-brown, but bright fire engine crayon red. Okay, at that point the red fur would be distinctive.
  • Red had absolute shit parents. You know, the kind that would name their son “Boy”.

Funnily, in most cases where I find foxes named Red, or equally generic names, none of the above seem to obviously be the case. But what I think writers need to remember is that names are (typically) given to children by parents, or in particularly unlucky cases, by an unlikeable bumbling idiot of a parish beadle. This doesn’t mean that names need to be particularly imaginative — I have an otherwise pure black unicorn character named Ace for the white Ace of Diamonds marking on his forehead — but if they’re based on appearance, they should probably not describe 90% or more of local children their age.

The last category of meaningful names, and the ones I may personally find the most entertaining to play with, are the ones that are meaningful not because of what meaning is assigned to the name in a book of baby names, but because of who else has carried that name before the character. Subtle (or not-so-subtle) nods to other works are hardly anything new, but done well, they can lend a new dimension to a work. T. S. Eliot, in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), introduces the reader to the nefarious criminal mastermind cat Macavity, who is described in a way that is clearly a homage to Arthur Conan Doyle’s archvillain Professor Moriarty. In a more recent example, characters in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events just so happen to share a last name with some poet or other (Baudelaire, Poe), and poetry figures in one way or another in several of the books.

I personally enjoy hiding literary references (often quite far-fetched) and puns (characters like a ferret named Jillian, a deer named Jane, a rabbit named Buck, etc.) as little “easter eggs” in my writing, in character names and sometimes also in situations or places featured in the text. The key to doing such effectively (and I’m not saying I can always pull this off) is to find the point where the people who get it are amused or feel like they’re in on some amazing secret, but the people who don’t catch the reference don’t feel like they’re missing something. Ideally it also shouldn’t come off as cheesy, but sometimes the joke is just too good to pass up.

1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/mar/16/fantasy-character-names, retrieved Aug 8 2010
2. Mördarens lärling (orig. title Assassin’s Apprentice) by Robin Hobb. Chapter 1; page 11. ISBN 91-27-07119-7
3. World Tree by Bard and Victoria Bloom. Pages 24-25. ISBN 1-890096-10-5

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