Writer’s Insights: What’s in a Name? Picking Character Names
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
We’ve all heard that particular platitude, famously uttered by Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps wise beyond her years, Juliet’s decrying the fact that Romeo’s surname (Montague) means she’s supposed to hate him. If he had any other name at all, she supposes he’d be the same person, but she wouldn’t need to hate him thanks to their families quarreling.
Names are imbued with meaning. Parents labor over picking the “right” name for children; pet owners think about what to name their dog. People of non-Anglophone ancestry in English-speaking Canada sometimes select an “English” name for themselves.
Some studies suggest people with particular names tend to have similar characteristics and life outcomes. Although most debunk this as “junk science,” many of us can attest to having similar experiences. “I’ve never met a Mark I liked,” my father says. I roll my eyes whenever my brother talks about his friend Tiffany. We all shake our head at the mythical Chad, the stereotypical embodiment of the dude-bro frat boy phenomenon. This goes against Juliet’s thought that a rose by any other name would still be the same thing; we tend to think of names as having power.
Names do indeed have meaning, although whether or not they have any power or influence over us as people is another story entirely. Perhaps because we’re aware names have meaning, because we’re aware of social perceptions about particular names, we then interact with children with particular names in differing ways, which then creates a self-fulfilling prophesy about how people with those names act. Maybe Chad is a dude-bro because society has told him to be one for so long.
The Meanings of Names
Names have meaning, as already established. First and foremost, they refer to someone or something. When I ask you about our mutual friend, I’ll inquire using their name. This conjures to mind the image of the person, and you’re able to tell me how this person is. If I just asked about “our mutual friend,” you’d like have to ask me “Which mutual friend?” or “who?”
Names also have meaning because they’re passed down in families. My middle name is my mother’s middle name. My brother’s is my father’s middle name, which is my grandfather’s first name, which he in turn inherited from another male relative. Names are thus imbued with generational and familial meaning, just as much as the inheritance of your last name can be.
Names, of course, also have other, more rooted meanings. Most of the time, we’ve lost sight of these meanings. “Stephen,” for example, is rooted in ancient words meaning “crown.” We don’t think of calling other people “crown,” but it’s what we’re effectually doing every time we talk about our friend Stephen.
Names are also rooted in linguistic and cultural history. Different names originate from different cultures, which can become important markers of ethnic heritage and inheritance, particularly for those in immigrant communities.
How Do You Choose a Name?
Obviously, writers tend to pick names pretty frequently. We have lots of characters, all of whom need names. For me, picking a name can be a relatively fraught process. I’m particular about sounds, first and foremost. I have a marked preference for names starting with “L” and “J,” something I have to dial back in my writing on a fairly frequent basis.
The next issue is often the popularity of a name. Sometimes, a popular name is fine. Sometimes you want something more unique, because you want your character to stand out. You don’t want them to be just another Josh or another Jake (although those names are well and fine).
Popular names also have those social connotations with them. Josh and Jake have particular male stereotypes attached to them. Same with Mike and Mark. Just mentioning those names probably conjured a particular image or type of person in your head. Sometimes, those are important and desired. At other times, they’re better avoided.
Heritage and Meaning
Another consideration I make is the character’s heritage. In fantasy worlds, this isn’t always as easy as contemporary fiction. In contemporary fiction, it’s often easier to ignore the meanings of heritage and ethnicity within names; some names have just been adopted into the English-speaking milieu and are common or popular, losing touch with their cultural roots. “Ryan,” for example, is a common enough male name in Canada and the United States, but we rarely associate it with its Irish roots (it means “little king” in Irish Gaelic).
Other names are biblical and although we don’t always mean to evoke a Christian inheritance, that’s actually what we do when we name characters Michael or Mark or Jacob or Joshua. It’s very easy to forget these names—and these forms of the names—mark the characters as part of the dominate Christian milieu in the English-speaking world. They’re so common we forget about their roots, but the reason they’re so common is because they’re part of that dominate tradition.
An Example: Reese Lockwood
Reese is an interesting example here. He has a blended family, with Welsh roots on his father’s side and Hispanic (Puerto Rican) heritage on his mother’s side.
Reese and his siblings all have Welsh first names. Rhiannon is probably a familiar girls’ name, although it’s not very popular and not necessarily “foreign” to the English-speaking world. Megan is incredibly common and popular as a girls’ name, so much so that I doubt many people know it has Welsh roots. Tegan is also Welsh, although much less common. I named the twins Megan and Tegan because of the similarity of spellings.
Reese’s brothers, Owen and Keenan, also have Welsh first names. Owen is, again, a relatively common first name in the English-speaking world, so it’s not entirely a given that anyone naming their child or even having this name knows exactly where it came from. Keenan has recently become more popular.
(Another interesting tidbit here: Reese is the only one of his siblings with red hair, and his name even indicates his status as an “outsider” in his family; all of his siblings have names ending with a vowel-consonant n: -on, -an, and –en. Reese is the anomaly.)
I picked Reese for a few reasons. I picked the spelling “Reese” over the more traditional Rhys for two reasons. One, I’ve always been thrown by the spelling Rhys. The second is “Reese” is a very Americanized version of that name; the r-h-y-s combo isn’t quite as intuitive to pronounce. Finally, it’s associated with the candy Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, another evocation of American culture.
Nonetheless, Reese is Welsh at the root. I was leaning toward it, but the meaning of the name was what finally sold me. It means “enthusiasm.” Reese, for all his problems, is a relatively upbeat and enthusiastic character.
Reese’s full name gives nod to his Hispanic background. His full name is Reese Josemaria Calderon de Alcantra y Lockwood. In Spanish-speaking countries, it’s very common for married women to retain their surnames and for the children to end up with both parents’ surnames, indicated by the “y” (and). Reese’s mother’s surname – Calderon de Alcantra – speaks to a place (“of Alcantra”). Calderon means “ “. It may be a combination of her own parents’ surnames, although perhaps not. Pia, Reese’s mother, felt it was important to acknowledge the kids’ heritage (and her own), which is why she opted for the “y Lockwood.” In most formal documentation, this gets shortened to “Lockwood,” which erases Reese’s Spanish heritage almost entirely. He’s noted problems when he puts the full name down, with it getting cut off; he’s been registered as “Lockwood,” “Calderon,” “Calderon de Alcantra,” but rarely by the correct rendering of the surname.
Reese’s middle name is Josemaria, which is common enough (Jose is the Spanish form of “Joseph” and “Maria” is Mary, so this is something like “Joseph-Mary,” a reference to Jesus’s parent Joseph and the Virgin Mary.) It speaks to both Reese’s Spanish heritage and his Catholic belief and upbringing.
He absolutely despises it, however, because of the inclusion of “maria,” which is a girls’ name. In the American milieu, men with what are viewed as “women’s” names aren’t entirely rare—look for men in the Deep South named Marion—but they do evoke a sort of confusion and sometimes ridicule. (My brother wrestles with this, as his name is “Addison,” which recently became popular as a girls’ name—although it literally means “son of Adam.” My brother is frequently presumed to be a woman.)
Reese has a few nicknames as well. “Marita,” a Spanish diminutive of Mary, is one of them, which stems from his middle name, Josemaria. He dislikes “Marita” as well and tries to keep it a secret, although his mother calls him this frequently.
Pia also calls him “Canelito,” or “little cinnamon stick” (from the Spanish “cinnamon” or “cinnamon stick,” canelo). This is a reference to Reese’s red hair.
Finally, his English nickname is “Pieces,” short for Reese’s Pieces, the name of the candy. This is a holdover from the earlier version of the manuscript where everyone on the swim team had a candy-based nickname. (Kat is Kit-Kat, and Gabriel was “Flossy,” from candy floss, Foss being his surname.)
Peeling Back the Layers
Maybe I overthink these things, but you can see I didn’t exactly wake up one morning and decide Reese’s name was Reese. There’s a lot of meaning packed in there, which become more evident as we pull back the layers.
We can clearly see “Reese” as an acknowledgment of basic character traits; Reese is enthusiastic, energetic, and often upbeat. His name means enthusiasm. It’s also a nod to an Americanized Welsh heritage and American consumerism, embodied in the reference to Reese candy. We could even read into Reese’s association with food—particularly with candy—as evidence of later plot developments. His name also signals his difference, even within his own family.
Reese’s middle name also tells another story: Spanish, Catholic heritage. It might also indicate to us Reese’s struggles with masculinity, since his name contains a “feminine” element, which he despises. We could also see it as a break between American understandings of other cultures. Reading the frequent erasure of “Calderon de Alcantra” in his last name, shortening it to just “Lockwood,” show us patriarchal and Anglicizing tendencies.
In short, a name is almost never just a name, especially not when it comes to fiction.