Writing Tip: A Character, a Personality and a Name

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.”

From Romeo and Juliet (Act II, scene ii)

I fell in love with Shakespeare when I was in middle school. While my friends groaned at the very thought of having to plod through the thick plays, I was consumed with the tragic, the comedic, and Shakespeare’s genius use of melodic words.

I spent most of my teenage years imagining myself as the ill-fated Juliet with the wrong name. Oh, how I wanted to change my name! Thankfully, I had other friends who disliked their names as much as I did, so we all made up new names and spent much of our middle school to high school lives under cover of our nicknames, and if I dare to say, a whole new personality.

Much like the color of hair, and the age old debate of the allure of blondes versus brunettes, I believe a name can hold the same power.  Especially in books, when the imagination takes hold of the written word and the reader is transported to another world. In my mind, a good name should be savored, showing a personality to full advantage, helping me fall in love with a character, even if he or she is a hero or villain.

The perfect character name has to roll off my tongue in a familiar way. J.K. Rowling is the mistress of creating great names and wonderful characters in the world of Harry Potter.

Take the Dursleys. Notice how this last name just rolls off your tongue in a dismissive manner. Cousin Dudley. Uncle Vernon. Aunt Petunia. Do you see yourself liking characters with these names? Or not?

Now you have Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Fred. George. Neville. Percy. Hagrid. Dumbledore. Professor McGonagall. The house of Gryffindor and Slytherin. Sirius Black. Professor Snape. Draco Malfoy. Voldemort. What do you feel about these characters just based on their names? And then when you see how J.K. Rowling develops these characters, don’t these names make perfect sense?

Names for our characters can provide some hints to the reader:
  • Ethnicity
  • Time Period – research this one well, if a name sticks out during a time period, it will take the reader away from the book
  • Family Background – an interesting way to present a name–what kind of baggage/expectation did the parents hand down the character feels pressure to live up to?  A blue-blood lineage?  Religious hopes?  Hippie dreams?  A love for literature?
  • Personality – usually used in books for younger readers
  • Nicknames – Dreaded or Liked?
  • Meaning – Go through the baby naming books or websites to find out the meaning of a name.
  • If a name sticks out too much, there needs to be some explanation to the reader on how it came about.

It’s not a requirement to choose a name because of one of the reasons above. A writer can choose a name, well, just because.  But, I think playing around with names for my manuscripts is fun. The name is minor, compared to everything else a writer needs to do to develop the character. However, I believe a good name helps flesh out the personality and can lead the writer on quite a journey of discovery in creating a memorable character.

What do you think?

This is the first in a series for Character Development. ( A repost)

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Vivian Lee Mahoney

Consider yourself warned: I write books about rebels. I'm also a postergirlz for readergirlz, a literary advisory group for teens. Who knew going back to the teenage years would be so rewarding?

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