Literary Pretensions: Naming Characters

In Sophomore year of high school my teacher made a very valiant attempt to get us engaged in Great Expectations. At one point she brought up the point that Charles Dickens gave his characters names that suited their personality. My best friend leaned over and whispered to me, “I hate it when authors do that.” Because I had such fucking awesome self-esteem as a teenager I muttered something about agreeing with him and vowed to never put care into my characters’ names again.

Four years later and I don’t agree with teenage me (I’m 20 as of six days ago and so I can now say things about Teenage Me. Fuck yeah adulthood!) In fact, when done thoughtfully I think that naming characters can be a great deal of fun. By my own pretentious reasoning I believe that there are two categories of good names.

  • The Onomatopoetic:  Names that sound like their character’s personality. Referring back to Great Expectations we have the clerk Wemmick whose name (“whem-iK”, I made up this phonetic spelling) with its hard ending sounds a bit like the clicking-clacking that I associate with his precise and sharp nature. I like subtle onomatopoetic names that don’t sound too much  like their character but are just enough to set the mood. This seasoning should be used carefully, if it’s too strong than it’ll overpower the character just be stupid.
  • The Easter-Egg: It’s fun when you’re reading to suddenly happen upon a pleasant surprise that the author’s hidden into the story. Of course, it’s also good fun as the author to think up and put together these treats. There’s the simplistic option like naming a happy character Cheery Peterson but I turn up my nose at the one. You might as well be bludgeoning the reader over the head and it’s a bit of an easy cop-out on actually describing the character. Names that have hidden meaning are my preferred poison. I think that JK Rowling is quite good at this style of name giving. There’s Minerva McGonagall but I think even that’s a bit too easy. Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore is one of my favorite in terms of layered meanings. I’ve read a few breakdowns of his name and the HP-Lexicon has a good page on Dumbledore. To summarize from there we have Albus (White [A white wizard is a frequent name or identity for a good wizard]) Percival (A Knight of the Round Table who was associated with the Holy Grail, also the name of Dumbledore’s dad) Wulfric (Anglo-Saxon for “wolf power/ruler” and a 12th century hermit) Brian (The HP-Lexicon suggests this is a reference to The Life of Brian and is meant to make fun of how grandiose his other names are. I haven’t come across any other solid suggestions besides this one.) Dumbledore (This one is fairly well known as JK Rowling did mention in an interview that she picked this Old English word, “Bumblebee”, as a reference to the seemingly balmy old Dumbledore walking around and humming to himself). Wasn’t that fun? I think that was fun.

Let’s face it, I’m no expert on writing but I am a reader who knows what they like, a writer who knows what I find fun to write and a complete and utter word nerd.

Anyone else have any strong opinions on the names of characters? (I was about to say, “not that I have a strong opinion on something so trivial” but then I realized that that was complete bullshit.)

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3 responses to “Literary Pretensions: Naming Characters

  1. *cough* I name my characters with names that seem right – and I have no idea how. Often I’ll keep futzing until one fits. I certainly never put quite that much thought into it. Hmm. Perhaps I should, at least one time.

    xx Dee

    • So I re-read this post after seeing you commented on it and am now kicking myself that I didn’t put futzing on the list. I’ve got quite a few characters whose names were randomly chosen and futzed with until they’re perfect…

      • Also, isn’t futzing a great word? (Also faffing, which I’m doing now.) ‘Colonel Futz peered at his boots, unimpressed at the flecks of mud clinging to the gloss. “Private!” he bellowed…’

        xx Dee

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