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What Kind of Name Is That?

February 8, 2016 | by

How to name your fictional characters.

Characters in need of names.

To me the most embarrassing part of writing fiction, aside from telling people about it, is naming your characters. Of course, even “real” names are made up, but in life our names are things we can alter only with a great deal of paperwork; in fiction, writers can line up names and identities as they please, dropping or trading them on a whim. Contriving a name for a contrived person seems terribly precious to me, akin to naming a doll. You want your characters to have names that aren’t too convenient but still memorable and meaningful, which isn’t easy. I spent about a year with a manuscript populated by memorable characters like [[ROOMMATE]] and ???????’s dad, swapping dozens of potential monikers in pursuit of the perfectly natural, unforced, graceful name. After rupturing a few blood vessels that way, I tried to figure out what other writers were doing.

The question of what names mean, what they’re for, has been around in the West since at least 500 B.C., when the Pythagoreans developed a few rules of onomancy to divine human traits from things like the number of vowels in one’s name. (Even numbers signaled an imperfection in the left side of the body.) One of the earliest discussions about naming comes from Plato’s dialogue “Cratylus,” in which Socrates oversees a debate about whether a name is “an instrument of teaching and distinguishing natures” or whether it’s just a matter of “convention and agreement.” More recently, psychoanalysts like Wilhelm Stekel and Carl Jung posited that the “compulsion of the name” not only reflects but determines one’s future: that we’re all engaged, from birth, in a nominative determinism. (Anyone quick to dismiss this as Freudian bunk should look at the abundance of Shaquilles now entering professional sports.) 

Cratylic names, as they’ve come to be known, express something essential about a character. They’re the kind we associate with Dickens’s minor characters, his Murdstone, Stryver, and Slyme—at every mention you’re reminded of their single dominant trait. These days they’re often considered unsophisticated and heavy-handed; one feels the author is trying to spoon-feed a theme or prejudice a characterization. And yet there are plenty of writers eager to impart the capital-S Significance that comes with a cratylic name: think of Martin Amis’s John Self and Lionel Asbo, or Updike’s priest Jack Eccles from Rabbit, Run. Then there are cratylic names laundered through irony—as when Steinbeck names his gentle giant Lennie Small, or Evan Connell calls an alienated married couple Mr. and Mrs. Bridge—and smuggled in by way of nicknames or allusions. Jonathan Franzen’s Purity “Pip” Tyler achieves all of the above, as does Gogol Ganguli in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, whose resentment of his name’s mannered import is the novel’s engine:

For by now he’s come to hate questions pertaining to his name, hates having constantly to explain. He hates having to tell people that it doesn’t mean anything “in Indian.” He hates having to wear a nametag on his sweater at Model United Nations Day at school. He hates that his name is both absurd and obscure, that it has nothing to do with who he is, that it is neither Indian nor American but, of all things, Russian. He hates having to live with it, with a pet name turned good name, day after day, second after second ... At times his name, an entity shapeless and weightless, manages nevertheless to distress him physically, like the scratchy tag of a shirt he has been forced permanently to wear. At times he wishes he could disguise it, shorten it somehow, the way the other Indian boy in his school, Jayadev, had got people to call him Jay. But Gogol, already short and catchy, resists mutation.

Notwithstanding these self-aware exceptions, two dominant camps of nomenclature have displaced the cratylic: the “realistic” name (e.g., John Carter, Theodore Decker) and the Pynchonesque absurdonym (Pig Bodine, Perkus Tooth). Even if one strives for verisimilitude and the other eschews it, both court a kind of arbitrariness: they’re names an author might defend by saying they “sound right.” And they achieve a similar effect: to suggest as little as possible about the character, favoring an invisibility that makes it easier for readers to project, speculate, and generally make up their own minds about what kind of a character they’re dealing with.

But a name is a word, and it’s difficult if not impossible for words to connote nothing; most names come freighted with convention, tradition, and history. The entry for “How to Name your Fictional Character” at WikiHow (always an amusing resource for complex issues) begins with the suggestion to “determine your character’s ethnicity and appearance.” Here things get dicey. Consider the white author who has to name his nonwhite characters. Though it’s easier than ever to research a passable name from another culture, you still see more than enough banal stereotypes and correspondingly lame puns. Off the top of my head, there’s Roald Dahl’s villainous Chinese leaders Chu-On-Dat and How-Yu-Bin in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, or Jean Nguyen (“John Wayne,” ha?) in Cryptonomicon, or Han Seoul-Oh in The Fast and the Furious films, or the multiple Asian protagonists named Hiro (Snow Crash, Heroes, Big Hero 6). A recent dust-up in the Tumblrverse centered over whether Harry Potter’s Cho Chang was plausibly named, though I’ll point out that a name can be both plausible and insipid.

Along those lines, what’s often most revealing about character names is what they say about their authors. It’s hardly uncommon for writers to invest their aspirations in their characters, and so too in their names. A friend once pointed out that certain ambitious male writers tend to endow their fictional surrogates with divinity and light—Hal Incandenza, Rabbit Angstrom, Chip Lambert, Nathan (“God’s gift”) Zuckerman. And obviously a writer inclined toward metafiction would see no need to stop there. Witness the (also largely male) tendency to write oneself into one’s book: Dante, Blake, Proust, Borges, Maugham, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth, Orhan Pamuk, Martin Amis, David Foster Wallace, Sheila Heti.

Introducing your own name isn’t necessarily an act of egotism; if anything, it strikes me as one of many attempts to sidestep the whole mess of naming. Other writers have opted to leave their protagonists unnamed, initialized (Josef K.), or downright algebraic, as in Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, which stars A., B., and C. You might also trade one set of connotations for another, referring to your character by profession (the Judge) or appearance (the Little Red-Haired Girl). Or you can take Tao Lin’s approach, borrowing names that are already so freighted with meaning that they induce cognitive dissonance from page one. As to why he named the characters Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment in his autobiographical novel Richard Yates, Lin explains that he “chose names that would not cause the reader to feel like there was hidden meaning in them”—they’re too loaded with superficial meaning for that.

You may well decide that the question of names is trivial beside the harder task of building convincing, nuanced characters to inhabit them. I was happy to let the protagonists in my novel Private Citizens remain nameless as I worked; inventing their names afterward had the same harmless thrill as reading their horoscopes would. Their names ended up as riffs on the conventions of naming. Linda Troland, an aspiring writer resentful of male writers’ female characters, is named for a measure of light cast on the retina; the transient Henrik (“ruler of the house”) is ironically cratylic, the dad-hating Cordelia an ironic allusion.

The only Thai character, Will, proved the toughest to name, since I’d dreaded being identified with him on the basis of race. On top of that, Thai surnames must by law be unique to each family, meaning I’d have to devise one from scratch instead of hiding behind a common one. After discarding a number of long, difficult options, I stuck with my placeholder: Will N——————, which he’s later pressured into shortening to N———.

Clearly it’s no coincidence that I have a long, difficult, Thai name, one that causes people to ask in what they think is a friendly tone, What kind of name is that? I’ve been advised several times to change it for the sake of professional branding. Writers seem uniquely susceptible to pseudonyms—on some level we’re aware that our names operate much as our characters’ do, subject to the same fiddling and tampering: we’ve seen the blue-blooded Thomas Williams III become the folksy Tennessee Williams, and the biblical Solomon Bellows become the rowdier Saul Bellow. In both cases, the pseudonym is far more fitting than the original. I chose not to change my name, though, not only because I knew it would influence readers’ perceptions of the book but because the book would alter the meaning of my name. I wanted my punishing, rebarbative last name—Tulathimutte, a subject of great anxiety for most of my life—to mean something different. This is, after all, what we mean when we say we want to make a name for ourselves. The name itself, whatever the reasons it was given, means less in the end than its final definition.

Tony Tulathimutte’s novel Private Citizens is out this week.