Names are odd little things. On the surface, they’re nothing more than the random sound we’ve agreed to make to draw someone’s attention, yet they can reveal anything from our family to our culture and from religion to social status. They’re our first impression; our verbal business card: the handful of syllables that contain all of who we are.
And that doesn’t just go for real people.
As readers, we’ll be making assumptions about your character from the moment they first walk through the door. All of us are etymologists at heart, whether we know it or not: constantly figuring out where words and names come from. Good writers know how to use that fact to their advantage — so before you send another Will or Mary into the world, consider these four questions:
Who named them?
Often times, parents or guardians will leave hints of their own personality when naming their beloved demon spawn. A girl named Hope comes with a pretty straightforward set of instructions, and John Jr. will likely feel some pressure to take over his father’s bait shop. That may seem trivial at first, but such clues can reveal a lot about the very childhood that shaped our characters.
In fact, many works of fiction have used this idea to their advantage. In Gilmore Girls, Lorelei passes her name on to her daughter as a statement of female empowerment. In A Song of Ice and Fire, Walder Frey’s bootlicking family tree is almost entirely composed of Walders and Waldas. A bit obvious, sure, but it does tell us most of their deal before they’ve so much as opened their mouths.
Where are they from?
As one of countless Julians that roam this world, my own name is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because most countries are familiar with my name, but a curse because each of them has found a different way to pronounce it. Your origins have a major impact on the name you carry, to the point that the exact same person could be John, João, Janek or Jean depending on where they first saw light.
And again, that doesn’t just go for real places. Even if you’ve never read or seen The Lord of the Rings, you can make a pretty informed guess that Bilbo and Frodo have a similar background, as do Elendil and Isildur. Solid naming customs don’t just make your characters more believable: it turns them into a trail of breadcrumbs that help weave your backstory into your novel.
What are the conventions?
Going even deeper, you could tinker with the very way in which children are named in the first place. The world is full of conventions that aren’t first-and-last-name, and minor differences can say a lot about the society our characters grew up in. Some cultures name children after their ancestors, or social status, or even their order of birth. They may be addressed by nicknames or affectionate forms, or even no name at all.
Surnames are equally open to variation. For one, people might take their father’s first name, or their last, or their mother’s or both or neither. They might be changed with gender, or marriage, or pretty much at the whim of their carrier. There’s so many intriguing variations out there; why settle for what’s been done a thousand time before?
Who’s referring to them?
Sure, their passport may say one thing, but not everybody’s gonna abide by a piece of paper. The way someone is addressed, out loud or otherwise, says a ton about the relationship between them and the people around them. In The Godfather, Michael Corleone is referred to in many different ways, from ‘that little droopy thing’ to the revered ‘Don Corleone’. A world of difference indeed.
There’s lots of different names in the writer’s group. Come add yours.