Names Matter

In an article titled How names influence our destinies, it is stated that, “Scientific studies have shown that the world makes different assumptions about a boy named Tyrone than it does about one named Philip, and while these assumptions are often wrong, they can have considerable influence on the course of a life.” – theweek.com March 9, 2012

“If I’m going to tell a real story, I’m going to start with my name.” – Kendrick Lamar

I love names, especially names that have something unique about them. In fact, for as long as I can remember I have played with name spelling. For example, my first pet that I claimed all responsibility for was a kitten, I ironically named this furry character after water. However, instead of going with the common spelling of River I choose to swap out the “i” for a “y”: Ryver. Since then whenever I have been privileged enough to be involved in naming someone I spend time, energy, and conversations on deciding a perfect name. The same can be said for naming characters.

  • Elphaba
  • Pippi Longstocking
  • Romeo
  • Huckleberry Fin
  • Jane Eyre
  • Veruca Salt
  • Eeyore
  • Atticus Finch
  • Jillian Jiggs
  • Albus Dumbledore
  • Arya Stark
  • Forrest Gump
  • Frodo Baggins
  • Gandolf
  • Sirius Black
  • Willy Wonka
  • Ygritte
  • Ichabod Crane
  • Matilda

I have a personal connection to the name Owen. Recently I was reading one of the books in The Wheel of Time Series, and felling love with the spelling Owyn! A simple name given a unique twist. I think that the sky is the limit with names depending on the character. However, this isn’t going to be a piece on generating character names because I think there are enough resources on that topic from name books, name generators, and other creative pieces. What I want to discuss involves the following question: does the name make the character, or does the character make the name?

William Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” An interesting argument about the power of a name, and there is so much wrapped into it. Name in this case is what makes Romeo and Juliet’s story. Another of my favourite name quotes comes from Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, and is as follows: “When she was twenty-six she dumped her old name. A lot of people were changing their names, then, because names were not just labels, they were also containers. Karen was a leather bag, a grey one. Charis collected everything she didn’t like or want and shoved it into this name, this leather bag, and tied it shut. She threw away as many if the old wounds and poisons as she could. She kept only the things about herself that she liked or needed…” I love this idea of a name as a container, and I would argue that it suggests that the character makes the name just as much as the name makes the character. However, does this character and name relation always work this way?

Would Harry Potter be as famous with the name Bob Smith (No offense to Bob)? Similarly, what about Katniss Everdeen, can we see her rising to glory as Jane Doe (Again, no offence Jane)? Would Percy Jackson’s character be as believable in his role as son of Poseidon with a name like Alphonse Jones? Maybe. However, I do think that there is something to the name itself that helps to set that magic about a character, and that helps solidify everything that a character is into one unified piece. I think there is a connection between characteristics and a name.

All that said, for me it is kind of like the chicken and the egg, which came first? Does the name fit the character, or the character fit the name? Let’s play a game. To start, read the following two character descriptions with the names provided:

#1. Boris Smythe

Boris Smythe wielded the hammer with brute force. Years of working metals had left his hands eager for hard work, and the repetition of motion was an act that soothed his mind. He had always been described as a large man, a man some felt descended from the time of the Ogres because of his size and strength. His rough features often scared new people away, he just never appeared the approachable type. However, for those few who knew him Boris was a quiet and contemplative man. He was never impulsive, or fast to anger…

#2. Wilhelm Williams

Wilhelm Williams was deep in thought, his mind raced with the possibilities for escaping the labyrinth that surrounded him. He had been running for hours, counting turns, and calculating probabilities. His lean body ached from tension and endurance, and his brain felt almost as exhausted. Yet, he pushed both mind and body a little more knowing that the end was just around the corner. Years of training both mind and body had culminated into this very moment, and everything he had worked for was riding on it. He believed himself to be ready, and now he was going to show it to those who would follow him. He was going to show them his strength of mind was ready to lead them, and protect them with strategy, focus, clarity, and knowledge.

Do you think the names could be switched in the descriptions? If so, do you feel that they fit the description as well as the original name given? Do you have a name that you feel might make a better fit?

If we refer back to the quote from theweek.com, in regards to assumptions, do you have any assumptions about “Boris” or about “Wilhelm”? Maybe associations, instead of assumptions. I think that I demonstrated some of my associations in the above character descriptions. Perhaps these associations, or assumptions are part of what lends credibility to characters and names. Perhaps for some characters battling against these associations and assumptions is part of what makes the fabric of their character. So, we are back to the character making the name as much as the name makes the character. Regardless, I think it is a fair argument that names matter.

Any thoughts?

By Shari Marshall – 2016