Novel Names, or Names in Novels

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Twice this day, I've encountered critics reflecting on the names writers give to their characters—the authenticity or not, the too-frequent overdeterminedness of the enterprise, the leap of faith that is all bound up in naming.

In Elif Batuman's marvelously idiosyncratic memoir, The Possessed (ingeniously subtitled Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them and rather otherwise ingenious, all around), Batuman, writing of the "perfection" of Anna Karenina, celebrates, among the novel's other attributes, the fact that "Anna's lover and her husband had the same first name (Alexei). Anna's maid and daughter were both called Anna, and Anna's son and Levin's half brother were both Sergei. The repetition of names struck me as remarkable, surprising, and true to life."

Later, in surveying the contemporary American short-story scene, Batuman notes, "No contemporary American short-story writer would have had the stamina not to name (Chekhov's) lapdog. They were too caught up in trying to bootstrap from a proper name to a meaningful individual essence...."

At the end of the day, reading James Wood in The New Yorker on "Conflict, Convention, and Chang-Rae Lee's The Surrendered," I discovered this:

"And this does not even touch on the small change of fictional narrative: how strange it is, when you think about it, that thousands of novels are published every year in which characters all have different names (whereas, in real life, doesn't one always have at least three friends named John, and another three named Elizabeth?)...."

I present this then, to all of you. I wonder how it is that you go about selecting your characters' names, and what you believe in, and don't, when encountering the names of characters in the novels and stories you are reading.


bermudaonion said...

It's so funny that you wrote about this because I was thinking about it the other day. I have a common name that I rarely see in books and I have a friend with a name that you don't hear often, and her name is used for characters all the time.

Q said...

I use and look at names and meanings, or I just go with what feels right. I don't like names that are too long or hard to remember (which is really inconvenient when I'm reading Russian novels).

I think the reason why authors name characters differently is because we as people can keep track of many more people than a writer could ever put into one book. We can see the people we know, and can absorb facts about them that would be tedious to write and read. But I am a big fan of companion books written in vastly different times who have people named after people in other books.

Sarah Laurence said...

Interesting post!

As a Sarah I’m used to repeating names in real life. I find it confusing when authors repeat names in books. It’s hard enough keep tracking of multiple characters as it is. In real life it’s easier due to the visual cues. Names should match the time period and region or they don’t ring true.

Some names pop into my head, but I frequently consult baby name books. For my novel based in England, I bought a baby name book there. For ethnic names I Google. For last names if it’s set where I live, I check a phone book.

I like to pick names with symbolic meanings that match the character. For example, Willa in my Shakespeare themed YA “as u like it” obviously references William Shakespeare, but I was also thinking of Willa Cather. Cather liked to cross dress as a man like Rosalind in As You Like It. Willa has “will” power too. It’s also a popular name with teens today but not overdone.

How do you choose your names?

Liviania said...

It may not be realistic, but if three characters are named John I'm going to be utterly confused. I get confused if three characters have a name that starts with the same letter.

When I name a character, I like to know a little bit about them first. The name cements what I feel. Often I give them a name that's actually a noun or a verb, then try to find a real name that reflects the qualities of the word, either through meaning or sound.

Melissa Sarno said...

When I'm writing, I usually accept the first name that comes out in that very moment. I very rarely think about it. When I'm reading, it's the same. I always accept any name that the writer tells me. I don't think I've ever questioned the authenticity of a character's name.

I'm sure there's a lot of naming philosophies out there. If I was expecting a child, I would probably put a lot of thought into the name. And yet, when I meet someone and they tell me their name, that's it. That's just...their name. And I move on and get to know them. Isn't it the same for characters?

Bee said...

I spend hours browsing baby name websites to find the right name for my characters. I need a name that kind of suits a character's personality because while it's not necessary, I think names make a sort of first impression that's often hard to shake.

Personally, I hate character names being repeated. It makes me confused and end up not reading the book ultimately.

kristen spina said...

There is often a name in my head already, when I am writing. Because usually I will have spent some time thinking about the character before writing about the character. It's random, it's a feeling, a sense, that this would be that character's name.

But it's also a little of this: a gentle name for a gentle soul, a strong name for a strong personality, a homage to a favorite aunt or friend... Maybe it's planned randomness?

Sherry said...

I'm with a few of the others who've already commented. Even when an author uses two names that look a lot a like, for example, Alicia and Allison. I tend to get confused especially if they are introduced close together before either one of their characters are fleshed out in the story.

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