Friday, February 10, 2012

What's in a Name?

What’s in a Name?
J.Q. Rose

The month of February is known for cupids, hearts, and love. It’s the perfect time of year to remember Shakespeare’s famous love story, Romeo and Juliet. I have included my favorite passage.
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet." 

In this renowned scene from the play, Juliet asks what’s in a name? She answers by telling Romeo Montague that a name is meaningless. She loves the person who is called "Montague," not the Montague name and not the Montague family.

Alas, if only this were true.

As a writer, I discovered the names of characters in the story are very meaningful. They help to convey to the reader the personalities and establish the setting of the novel. If writing a story set in Victorian times, an author would not choose Jayden or Madison, the popular names in 2010.

A strong, powerfully built hero would probably not be named Herbert. How about that gorgeous sexy blonde character at the bar? A name like Edith just does not evoke the matching image in the reader’s mind.

In my mystery/suspense novella, Sunshine Boulevard, I chose authentic names for the retired seniors from Michigan, Jim and Gloria Hart. The names are era-appropriate and conjure up characters who are solid, Midwest citizens.

Think about the name of your favorite character in a book you have read. I love Mark Twain’s Huck Finn. There just is no other name that would fit that adventurous kid. In Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, what better name than Lula for that wild and crazy lady of the night and Morelli for the sexy rogue policeman? 

When it comes to naming characters, what’s in a name? Everything!

Visit the J.Q. Rose blog in February to discover what romantic stories Cupid Reads.

J.Q. Rose is the author of Sunshine Boulevard, a mystery novella from Muse It Up Publishing.
Mysterious deaths upset the Florida retirement community interfering withtheir seasonal activities
and turning up more than dead bodies...


Wendy said...

So true, Janet. We need names that fit the era.
Thinking of your example Romeo and Juliet, how good of Shakespeare to chose those names to come down through history. When we develop such fantasic characters we owe them great names. e.g. Othello, Lady Godiva, Cinderella, (my Stefan, hehehe).
And would the name Becky Sharp be so memorable if it wasn't for her heavily flawed character?
Good post.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Good post and I completely agree - I can't even get on with a story or novel until I have the correct name for the characters!

J.Q. Rose said...

Thanks, Wendy and Rosemary. Once I find just the right name, the writing flows better because I know who the character is. And then, I start talking to folks about the book using the character's name like it's a real person...

Vicki Batman, sassy writer said...

Hey, J Q Rose: I talked this subject myself in a blog post last fall. I've sold a bunch of short fiction pieces and was astonished when names were changed. For example: Piper Lucida--isn't that a font? Or Alexander Walsh to Grant Malbec--a wine?

Not ideal. I belabor naming characters.

Although in one story, I named the hero Ryan and right before sending it to a (different) magazine, changed the name to Ethan. Ethan fit.

Good post!

Jim Hartley said...

I often find myself in a different situation, because I write Fantasy and SF. I have to come up with names for aliens, or people in far different environments. My usual guideline is to make up a name that sounds nice, but is not something that would fit in today's world. Girls from outer space named Shareeth or Shaneeth (I've used both), or a Princess named Berlina. Let's face it, you don't expect to find an alien girl named Mary in the ruins of a crashed spaceship. Nor do you expect a Princess named Jane to pick up her sword and go on a quest.

I enjoyed your comment about a hunk named Herbert ... in one short story I had a big, powerful, maiden-capturing dragon named Herbert. But that story was played for laughs, the incongruity was deliberate.

angela robbins said...

I, too, am completelly obsessed with getting a character's name right. Sometimes I spend hours surfing the web to find names with historical signifigance that may match the types of characters in my stories. I have to give each a middle name, even if it never hits the pages. I know their siblings, their parents, their grandparents, even if they don't hit the pages.

So sometimes a rose can't be a tulip.

Heather Haven said...

Sometimes when a character is so well written, so memorable, we associate the name forever with the traits associated with it. Heathcliff, on the surface of it, is a very nerdy name. Yet it brings to mind a brooding, gorgeous, and misunderstood man in Wuthering Heights. I understand the name Emma is the most commonly used name for a heroine (read that somewhere), yet I don't find the name very compelling, myself. As for the name Edith, I believe there are several sexpots with the nickname. Edie Adams, the singer married to Ernie Kovacs, the 60's come to mind. I saw an old flick of hers the other day and couldn't believe her attributes. Anyway, A name is a name is a name is a....

J.Q. Rose said...

Thank you for your comments. You are so right, Jim. I can't picture Mary in space..!! you mean the editor at the magazine changed your character's names? Hmmmph...interesting choices.

Heather--Edith as a sexpot? Ha, I picture Edith with Archie Bunker!!

Angela--I have heard many authors say they keep a book of baby names on their desk to get ideas. It probably doesn't help with historical accuracy though!

gail roughton branan said...

I absolutely agree and naming characters is the hardest of all things for me as a general rule! It's where I pull in my circle of friends and ask for assistance. I even keep things that have lists of real names so I can mix and merge and juxtapose first and last names to get the feel I want!

Susan Royal said...

The right name is so important to me. I can't begin to get into writing a story unless the character's name is right. The same thing hold true for the title of a book. But I wonder. Does the name define the character or does the character define the name?

Unknown said...

My characters tend to name themselves. Sounds weird, I know. But I've had names picked out for characters, have written half the book and realized the name didn't fit at all. S/he worked their name in, just like they sometimes work in twists and take a story in a direction I didn't plan.

As for Herbert as a hunk...yeah you're probably right. It doesn't give off the hunky vibe, but sometimes it works. I don't particularly get "hunk" from the name Edward (sorry if there are any Edward's's not personal ha-ha) but in Twilight he was the hunky lead character.

Sometimes a name that doesn't "fit" fits.

Just my two cents...

Concilium, July 2012

Barbara Ehrentreu said...

J.Q., excellent article on naming characters. For me like Michelle, the characters name themselves. The mean girl in my story got named Jennifer Taylor and then I started seeing girls who looked just like I pictured my character to be named Jennifer.

Jim, I don't write sci fi or fantasy for just that reason. Sometimes I'll pick up a fantasy book for YA and see the names and say, can I really read this? Complicated names turn me off.

Only authors can probably understand your comment that once you get your character names they talk to you.:) We are all visited by our characters as we write and sometimes before we sleep.:)

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Can you imagine Rhett Butler by any other name? Or Maggie in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof? Or Stella and Stanley in Streetcar Named Desire?

I spend a long time choosing the right name for my novels. Some come easy, but most take weeks of getting to know my protagonist. Brendell Kisepisim Meshango was long coming, yet now feels so natural.

Great post, Janet.

Joylene Nowell Butler, Author

J.Q. Rose said...

What a delightful way to spend the day with all of you. Thanks so much for joining in the conversation. Now I am looking for a name for my next story. I'll be thinking of all of you as I make the decision.

J.Q. Rose said...

What a delightful way to spend the day with all of you. Thanks so much for joining in the conversation. Now I am looking for a name for my next story. I'll be thinking of all of you as I make the decision.

Pat Dale said...

What's in a name, indeed. I never thought of Jane as particularly sexy until I met a girl from Atlanta, who'd been transplanted into the hinterlands of central Nebraska. She had to be the sexiest woman ever, and had the menfolk of that little town stepping on their toes when she was near. She needed a male friend who was not after her bones and I volunteered, to the dismay of my wife. She needn't have worried, though. Jane had deep dark secrets that she couldn't share, even with her own husband. But I got 'em. Boy, did I get 'em.
I always planned to write a book about her but haven't got around to it. Yet.
Maybe that's why when I wrote my psychological suspense, Crossed Lines, my protagonist was named Jane. Hmm, I think I may have just shared a little too much information. LOL

J.Q. Rose said...

I just had to add here my first reader is giving me a hard time about the name of a pig in my WIP. I like Abraham...he's always been Abraham in my mind from day one. She suggested something country-like e.g. Soybean. Sorry, Girlfreind, but it's gotta be Abraham. I'm sure you all understand.