Monday, May 7, 2012

Characterization: By Any Other Name

Naming your character is just as important a part of creating your character as any other. Shakespeare claimed that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet," but would it really? He penned this phrase centuries before psychologists began to study the perceptions of the human brain. Would a rose still smell as sweet to us if we called it skunk cabbage? I say it would not.

Your name and the names of your characters can affect how they are treated, which is a strong part of who they are. References such as The Name Book by Pierre Le Rouzic lists names with their associated personality traits. This is often amazingly accurate. It can be scary, but I digress.

The sounds of hard and soft consonants tend to fall differently upon the ear and therefore the psyche. Hard consonants are edgy, outspoken and strong. Soft consonants are smooth, gentle and unobtrusive. This is something that I discovered in my years of writing poetry, but it can translate into writing prose as well.

Take the similar names Kiki and Cici. Kiki has an edgier sound, like this person would be outspoken, extroverted, and even shocking. Cici on the other hand has a gentler, more forgiving sound, so the character may be shyer and more caring. Names that mix these sounds can fill in the spectrum between the two.

There are also our cultural perceptions that go into a name. Someone named Edna is not a super model, but may be a stern spinsterish librarian. Roxanne on the other hand is the super model sort of name, but highly unlikely to be a librarian. The cop on the beat is more likely to be Bud or Joe, but would get his ass kicked routinely if his name were Chauncey. However, here is where you can have a little fun. Chauncey could have the nickname Chance and keep the truth quiet. That can also add to who the character is.

Would Marilyn Monroe have been the same bombshell if she had remained Norma Jean? Would Morgan Fairchild had become a vixen as Patsy? Would John Wayne have such a tough-guy image as Marion? I think not. You get my point.

The other thing to keep in mind is the time frame in which you are writing and how appropriate it sounds for that moment in history. A character in the 19th century would not be named something very frivolous. The Victorian Age was more down to earth and you would be more likely to find a slew of Janes and Marys, but to go a bit further out from dead center, you would find Pearl, Ida, and Hazel. Author Suzanne Collins does an admirable job with this in The Hunger Games by making the names of the future sound like a natural evolution of current names. So that the irascible Haymitch may have once been the name Hamish.

You may also want to steer clear of trite names. Using Shirley for the wise-cracking, gum-popping waitress at the diner is as old as the hills. Does that actually fit your story? Maybe that waitress would be better as a Phoebe, the seemingly flaky, over-worked grad student trying to finish her thesis. The girl who is called Willie because daddy wanted a boy has been done to death. Put a spin on it. She was named Willie, not because she wasn't the desired boy, but because mama went into labor at the ball park when Willie Montoya was pitching a no-hitter.

I am blessed, or cursed, with the gift of synesthesia, whereby letters and numbers take on colors. So this plays a strong part in how I select names for my characters. Julie is a lovely purple and green, where Edna comes across as a dull blue-gray. Andrea is a pale harvest yellow. I have to take this into account when I name characters, because this has an even deeper effect on how I perceive them. Hazel, while a dandy name, is shades of brown and black to me and I would need to assign it properly to be able to use it.

So, what's in a name? An awful lot apparently.

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