Friday, November 6, 2009

It's All in the Name... Or is it?

The other week I was participating in a Twitter conversation (in the #YAlitchat, which takes place every Wednesday at 9:00 p.m. EST); the topic was how writers choose to name their characters.  I won't get into my own naming practices here; I've started yet another blog to track my writing journey, Jessie's Writing, so check there for a future posting on my own personal naming habits.  The talk of how we choose to name characters, though, made me start thinking about the names of characters in some of my favorite books.

I remember when I was younger reading an interview with R.L. Stine; he said that some of his characters had their names because his kids had started their own business at school, "selling" other kids the ability to have their names appear in one of their dad's future books.  I'm not sure how serious he was about that, but I think the philosophy behind it represents one type of naming practice: books that have character names that don't necessarily "mean" anything beyond, "Well, a character has to have a name, right?"  Quite honestly, as I'm reading, usually the names don't speak to me unless I have prior attachments to the name.  As shallow as it makes me sound as a reader, I'll try out any book that has a character named Lucy simply because I'm infatuated with I Love Lucy.  And so for most books, I don't think too deeply about why the author chose a particular name for a particular character, and I'm not sure a lot of books actually have significant reasons.  In saying that, though, I don't mean that I ignore names altogether; in fact, some of my favorite books do have rather significant meanings behind the names, and I revel in that as a reader.

In the book Bitter Sweets (by Roopa Farooki), a character sums up the inspiration for the rest of this post quite nicely (taken from page 60):

Ricky-Rashid had an unconscious Dickensian belief that the name unveiled the soul; no man named Uriah Heep would ever be a romantic hero, no boy named Twist could expect a straightforward life.

Ricky-Rashid's thoughts continued, letting readers know that for him, "a rose by any other name" would not in fact still be a rose.  And so, it's all in the name.  Or is it?

On one end of the spectrum is Rebecca by Daphne duMaurier.  When I picked up the book, I assumed the main character's name was Rebecca; after all, it would make sense that the name on the cover of the book matched the name of the main character.  As I read, though, I found out that Rebecca was the name of the main character's husband's first wife (in other words, Rebecca was the first Mrs. de Winter while the main character is the second Mrs. de Winter).  I was nearly finished with the book before I realized the main character wasn't named.  She was called "Mrs. de Winter," but her first name is never provided.  I delighted in the mystery having no name presented--it only let me know so much about the main character even though I was able to read her thoughts and interactions with other people.  There was something about not knowing her name that kept part of her character a secret from me, and I liked that secrecy--that intrigue.  The primary significance of the names in this book is represented by the lack of a name for the main character.  That raises the question of whether it can really be all about the name if not all characters even receive names.

On another end of the spectrum is the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.  In her books, names reflect the characters but do so in such a way that readers may not be able to recognize the relationship on the surface.  If you take the time to look up the origins of the names, though, they are the character in word form.  The names are characters all by themselves.  I found a website that provides meanings of the names for all the primary characters (and even some not-so-primary characters) in the books.  I have to admit that the first time I read the Harry Potter books, I didn't think too hard about the names--I just let myself get lost in the story.  It wasn't until I was teaching a Study of Words course that I began to realize just how many Latinate roots the unique words in Harry Potter had (e.g., the names of spells).  Then I started researching more about the names of characters in the books and found just how intricately J.K. Rowling had worked to shape the names of all her characters.  For example, the following is taken from the website provided above for the names of the Harry Potter characters:

Headmaster Albus Dumbledore: His first name is from the Latin word alba, "white." His last name, according to Rowling interviews, is Old English for "bumblebee." In color symbolism, white often stands for purity, so the headmaster's name suggests honor and a hard-working nature ("busy as a bee").

I don't have the type of reading habits that make me take into account all the details and ask what they might be symbolic of; instead, I tend to read for the pure enjoyment of reading.  And yet, names really are fascinating when authors integrate them so well into the plot that readers don't feel the strain from the struggles the author must have gone through to get all the names "just so."

In comparing the two differing styles of naming characters, I am not sure which author had a more difficult task: J.K. Rowling, who hand-crafted all her characters' names, or Daphne duMaurier, who hand-crafted the story in such a way that the lack of a first name for her main character would not be a glaring distraction to the novel.

What books come to mind for you when you think of memorable character names?  Which authors, in your opinion, use interesting character names?

Happy reading and analyzing character names!

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