Naming names

I read long ago that John Irving would sometimes select the names of the characters in his novels from the telephone book. Or it may have been that his writer character T.S. Garp did that. In any case, I was reading another writer’s blog last week and came upon a recommendation of this very same practice.

That seems like the waste of a good opportunity to me. A character’s name can be a chance to do more work in a novel.

Consider Mr. Knightly in Emma. His name is not a coincidence. Or Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter. He certainly is walking down a dim dale. The names in Moby Dick are so freighted with double and triple meanings that you could spend a lifetime pondering them. I suppose you could make a case that such blatant symbolism is best left in the 19th Century, and maybe so. Yet consider Dickens and his characters. Pecksniffian is now an adjective based on one of his character names. Many of the colorful character names in the Harry Potter novels are said to hearken back to Dickens’ naming panache. A malapropism is a term based, in part, on the character Mrs. Malaprop in the Sheridan play The Rivals. Clearly a well named character can do a lot for a work. I don’t think you’ll get as much mileage with a name drawn from the phone book.

I like to give some thought to the names I give my characters. It isn’t always the case, but often I will select a name with some secondary purpose in mind. In Finnegans Awake I named a pair of spinster sisters in such a way that another boorish character in the story can comically mangle them when he makes introductions. The innkeepers in that story are named as a sort of inside joke about their favorite way to treat their guests.

In Finnegans Afoot, which I’m writing now, I set story in a fictitious Missouri county so I can avoid any claims of libel. I named the county after a prominent Missouri writer and the county seat using his middle name. A restaurant on the town square is given his first name. (No, it isn’t Samuel Langhorn Clemons.) I like this kind of playfulness, and I know it will be lost on most readers, but some readers will catch the reference, and for them it will be memorable. Memorable enough, I hope to make them want to read more of my work.

In Finnegans Deciphered, which I continue to make copious notes about, names of characters will have profound meaning and not in a symbolic way but rather in a very literal way. That is part of what is deciphered in the novel.

Even if a character’s name isn’t meant to have meaning for the reader, it will sometimes be helpful to me. A writer I know once said that she used the name Mrs. Snide for one of her characters merely as a way to keep her personality in mind while she was being written. (I suppose she changed the character’s name after the writing was finished.) I’ve often given my characters the names of people I know to do the same thing. If I want a character to have my friend’s personality, I’ll name the character after my friend, at least in the draft stage. That way, thousands and thousands of words later, I will still easily recall how the character would react in a situation because I know how my friend would.

Writing can be a many layered process, and I certainly don’t want to squander one of those layers by taking random names from the phone book.

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5 Comments on “Naming names”

  1. Rick Says:

    I agree that a good name lost to chance is an opportunity lost. However, sometimes I get too bland in my name choices, so I rely on a name generator to get me jumpstarted in the choice of names. The name generator I use is: http://www.xtra-rant.com/gennames/

    It is one of many little tools under WRITING HELP on my blog.

    If a rabbit’s foot is lucky and rabbit tastes like chicken, wouldn’t a chicken leg (maybe from KFC) be lucky also?

  2. paullamb Says:

    Rick, it would have to be a chicken’s foot, not a leg. I don’t think the Colonel is selling those, but I’m sure there are sources for these things.


  3. […] you name your characters after? Is it a question of plucking names from the phonebook, or do you, like this blogging writer, prefer to have a secondary purpose in […]


  4. […] you name your characters after? Is it a question of plucking names from the phonebook, or do you, like this blogging writer, prefer to have a secondary purpose in mind? You might even have accidentally named your character […]


  5. […] do you choose names for your characters? Do you pluck names from the phonebook, or do you prefer to have a secondary purpose in mind, use a homage, or find a placeholder […]


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