We’re away until January 3, but we’re reposting some of our favorite pieces from 2016. Enjoy your holiday!
How to name your fictional characters.
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.)