What’s in a Name…

Currently, one of my most favorite shows on television is “Justified”, which airs on FX, though I’m not sure of the day because I usually watch it using ‘On Demand’. It’s an incredibly well-written show and is vastly different from everything else on television that I’ve found. The show stars Timothy Olyphant in the main-character role as Marshall Raylan Givens and Walton Goggins as his foil, mild-mannered convicted felon, Boyd Crowder, and I honestly can’t decide which one I find sexier.

The reason I’m talking about this is because the show is based on characters from a couple books and a short story written by Elmore Leonard. Desperate for more Justified drama following the recent scintillating season finale, I had searched everything I could find connected to the show and that included an interview with Leonard in which he discussed how he came about naming his character “Raylan”, and naming characters in general.

I have a love-hate relationship with naming characters. For me it can be the most difficult part of the entire character development process but, at the same time, it can also be the most fun.

Now, some people might be wondering: what’s so difficult about giving a character a name?

Think about it.

Your character’s name is typically going to be the first thing your reader will know about your character, for your reader it will be the most intimate part of her relationship with your character because it will be the reader’s only identifier of the character, and because of this, the name will play a huge role in how your reader will view that character throughout the entire story.

This is reasonable when you consider that even in everyday life we formulate impressions of people based on their names. For instance, would you take a doctor more seriously if his name was Scooter? Or William? Would you be more inclined to think a woman a sultry vixen if her name was Delores? Or Cassandra?

Let’s face it. Names are powerful things. Parents-to-be generally put a lot of thought and research into what name they’re going to give their child and the name they choose for their child is usually a reflection of the person they want their child to become. How is an author birthing a character any different?

Well, for starters, having a name like ‘Scooter’ might not hold back a bouncing baby boy from becoming a world-renowned neural surgeon but it could possibly keep your audience from connecting with your character, which could potentially severely hurt your story.

Methods for naming characters vary from writer to writer, even, and from character to character.

Sometimes you get lucky. You stumble across a name that just begs to be a character. This is what happened with Leonard, who just happened to meet a gentleman named Raylan, and just like that, the modern-day cowboy Marshall Givens with his own brand of justice was born.

If you’re anything like me, however, most of the time you linger in character name purgatory, sifting through ‘baby-name’ websites for inspiration.

Regardless of methodology, there are a few things I like to bear in mind when name-hunting.

* How do you want your readers to view your character * – Considering this has been what the majority of my post has been talking about thus far, the impression our names give other people, it’s no wonder I’m listing this as the first, if not most important, thing to always bear in mind when character naming. Remember though, the name doesn’t have to be a stereotype and it doesn’t have to fit the character’s personality to a ‘T’. What I mean when I say “how do you want your readers to view your characters” is exactly that, how do you want your characters viewed?

Take for example, Indiana Jones. The name conjures up someone dashing, adventurous, someone a bit flashy, and that’s exactly how we – the audience – are expected to view him. Right away, we find him interesting, because he has an interesting name. But is that exactly who Indiana Jones proves to be? Yes. And no. I don’t care who you are, you have to admit Harrison Ford is dashing. Adventurous? He’s an archeologist that regularly treasure hunts, gunfights, and he’s got a little bit of a whip fetish. Yup, definitely adventurous. He fits our expectations, but not exactly. He’s also a professor who wears reading glasses and tweed suits with little bow ties. And oh yeah, he’s deathly afraid of snakes.

Now, think about this: would we have found Indiana Jones as interesting if his name were, say, Norman Jones. He certainly sounds like a professor now but Norman Jones and the Temple of Doom. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it…

Looking at the flipside of interesting, let’s look at another example: Harry Potter. (Yes, I’ve used Harry Potter before…not because I’m a huge fan of the series – I never finished the last book, I admit as I hang my head in bookworm shame – but because it’s well known) Nothing interesting about that name. No sir. It’s actually quite…average. Which is exactly the picture Rowling’s wants her audience to conjure up. Harry is an average boy, he’s got messy brown hair, is a bit on the scrawny side (his fat relatives apparently don’t feed him and I guess there’s no such thing as Child Protective Services in the UK), wears black-rimmed glasses and isn’t extraordinarily intelligent or athletic. Aside from being a prophesized savior in an underground wizarding world, Harry is about as interesting as a packaging peanut. Maybe even less so because packaging peanuts make fun crinkling noises when you squish them.  J

Now, if Rowling had given her character the name Flash Potter (Yes, Flash…you see, because of the lightening shaped scar on his head, ha..ha…), it would have completely skewed the image she was trying to create for us. Right away, we would find it hard to believe that this boy were average, not with a name like Flash.

As you can see by these examples, name choice can play heavily in character development. Not only by giving the reader that first impression but by creating a springboard from which to more fully flesh the character out, proving some first impressions wrong but reinforcing others.

* What is the character’s cultural/ethnic background * – As an anthropology major, I tend to think about characters and even story development in terms of culture and ethnicity but it also helps when taking into consideration a character name. This doesn’t mean you should choose a name based on his ethnicity but remember that we are reflections of our upbringings.

Socialization is the term used to describe the process by which a child comes to understand the cultural norms of her society; likewise your characters should be socialized within the context of their story.  Readers will expect a character to behave appropriately to her society’s social norms, at least, to some extent (rebellious character types may purposely break from social norms to be rebellious…which is only further proof of the importance of considering culture when creating a character).  Her name can be an extension of that cultural identity.  Furthermore, certain names and even different spellings of names are more prevalent in particular parts of the world.  For example, in America we’re more likely to spell the name ‘Jeffery’, but in the United Kingdom, you’re more likely to see the name ‘Geoffrey’.

The names of your characters will help to build the scenery, lending to the atmosphere of the environment.  The television show Justified takes place in Harlan County, Kentucky.  Along with Marshall Raylan Givens, and his counterpart Boyd Crowder, other characters in the show include Raylan’s father Arlo Givens, Boyd’s lovely wife, Ava, the Bennett clan headed by Mags, her son Dickie, and his friend Dewey Crowe, and then there’s seedy criminal mastermind/pig farmer, Ellstin Limehouse.  Though these names are not necessarily unheard of in other locales, they have a decidedly southern twang to them, and help to build upon the imagery and atmosphere of the world around them.

Sometimes when creating characters, writers will aim for ethnic neutrality in order to attract a more diverse audience but I kind of think this is folly.  I think readers will connect better with characters who have an established cultural or ethic connection, regardless of whether they share that culture or ethnicity, simply because we all possess that connection  and can understand it.  We can’t ever forget, in our efforts to create a character readers will like and relate to, that readers like and relate best with people.  Give your characters a cultural identity, and don’t be afraid to let that identity be reflected in their name.

* What is the time period this character lives in * My mother’s name is Velma which was a fairly popular name in the 1960’s, when she was born.  Nowadays, you would be hard-pressed to find a baby christened ‘Velma’.  Names, like fashion, music, and everything else in our pop culture world, go through phases.  There’s a reason names like Ethel, Marge, Frank, and Jasper remind us of grandmothers and grandfathers, because, along with flappers, moonshine, and zoot-suits, those names were in and have since gone out of style, though eventually they may come back.

When searching for a name for your character, the time period is an important thing to consider.  This doesn’t mean that you have to give your character the most popular baby name of that era.  But bear in mind, certain names that you’ll find in our modern society may have been completely unheard of, say, one or two hundred years ago.  If your story centers on a young Confederate soldier during the United States Civil War, you probably aren’t going to name him Justin.  On the flip side, names that were frequent in ancient times may seem strange or outdated in a modern world.  While you can certainly name your lead female character of your modern day mystery novel Hippolyta, be prepared for other characters to comment on the oddity of such a moniker.

Also, and much like the previously mentioned point about culture/ethnicity, character names can help set the tone and date of your story.  Remember my question at the start, “who sounds more like a sultry vixen, Delores or Cassandra?”  Well, in the 1940s-50s, Delores might have been considered the name of one hot mama, so if you’re staging your story in that time period and need a name for a sultry vixen character type, you might want to consider Delores.

* What sounds good * Remember good ole Norman Jones?  Aside from sounding like a stuffy professor in a sweater vest, his name doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue quite like Indiana Jones.  This may seem like a no-brainer, but I’ve come across a lot of beginning writers that never seemed to take this simple concept into consideration.  Names that were too much of a mouthful, were far beyond abnormal, too much effort put into making them unique that they didn’t fit the story or the character, or they just simply did not sound good.  If a character’s name is long, strange, or doesn’t have an appealing phonetic arrangement, the reader will have difficulty remembering it.

Yes, remembering it.  Recall that I said the characters name is the identifier of that character?  Well, if your reader has trouble remembering that name, then they’ll have trouble identifying the character in the story, if they have trouble identifying the character then they’ll have trouble relating to the character.  If they have trouble relating to your character then they aren’t going to care about your character.  If they don’t care about your character then they aren’t going to care about what happens to your character.  What happens to your character is your story so if the reader doesn’t care what happens to your character then that means they don’t care about your story.  Readers don’t read stories that they don’t care about.

Starting to grasp the importance of naming a character?  Or are you just staring blankly at the screen wondering about my sanity?  Yeah…I am slightly paranoid, but that doesn’t demean my point!

Anyhow, when I name a character, I like to say the name aloud.  The entire name.  Get a taste for it on my tongue.  If it doesn’t sound right, I scrap it and start the search over again.

Like I said before, naming a character can be the most difficult part of the entire character development process but, like every process in story writing that can be equally if not more so difficult, it can also be really fun.  And the end result can be incredibly rewarding, especially if you happen to create a character that becomes as wildly popular as Raylan Givens.

One last thing, if, like Elmore Leonard, you have the great fortune to come across a really cool name, take note of it whether you yet have a character in mind to fit it and/or a story to surround that character or not because you never know, later down the line you may be staring at the screen searching for a good name and, lo and behold, that cool name you jotted down might just happen to be the name your looking for.  Otherwise, think about the things I’ve said here, and good luck.

Moral of the story: You want your character’s name to stand out, but not too much, to say a lot about your character, but not everything, and, of course, to be memorable.

It might also help your character to gain in popularity if he's portrayed by an incredibly awesome (...sexy...) actor like Timothy Olyphant.

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  1. I mostly agree. The only thing I would clarify, is that you can name your doctor Scooter but you must make it work organically for the reader. Make Scooter aware of his odd name. Maybe he escaped a backwater family to go on to bigger things?

    Cool post. Just started “Justified”. Loving it.

    • Thank you for the comment. Yeah, you’re definitely right, and I should clarify, I didn’t intend to imply that you couldn’t name your doctor character Scooter. Your example background is actually really good, thank you for it. It perfectly takes into consideration both how you want your character to be viewed (much like the people in the story would view him, as a character with a past to overcome) and his cultural upbringing (from a lower socio-economic family).

      Though, personally, I’d make him the child of a famous movie actress and a rock star who thought the name “Scooter” was wicked awesome but he’s trying to overcome that material upbringing by dedicating his life to doing something meaningful.

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