The power of a name
One of the most amazing things about writing is the ability to choose the names of the characters, places, and things which make up the story. The power of a name well chosen can propel a story to great heights. A poorly chosen one can drag it down and strike a discordant note every time it appears.
Names like Jo March from Little Women, Miss Trunchbull from Matilda, and Percy Blakeney from The Scarlet Pimpernel are burned in readers’ minds as indispensable and iconic. Places like Never Never Land from Peter Pan and Ember from The City of Ember are almost impossible to imagine called by something else. And The Nothing from The Neverending Story or lembas bread from The Lord of the Rings are hard to imagine by any other words.
Indeed, names are powerful tools in the hands of an author. The name of a character can give readers loads of information without having to write a word of description.
An example which comes to mind is the opening line of Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where we’re told:
Once there was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
Can you imagine being saddled with such a moniker? It’s depressing just thinking about it. In just the mention of this name we are already imaging how pitiful, annoying, and wheedling this character must be. As the story unfolds we find out that Eustace is everything his name promised and a good deal more.
Characters name themselves
When I wrote The Chronotrace Sequence, the main character, Adan, originally had a different name. He was originally conceived as sort of a tough, detective kind of guy, but it became obvious in early drafts that he needed to be a very different sort of person. The world around him changed and so did his role, so his name no longer fit.
I changed his name to Adan at that point, which is the Spanish form of “Adam”. I wanted his appearance in the story to echo the appearance of the first Adam. Only this time, the creator was not God, but men. The first chapter is called, “Ex Nihilo” (out of nothing) for the same reason. At the same time, the name felt gentler and more innocent to me, which was more in line with how the character needed to be.
The other main character in the first book in the series is Will. He is the driving force behind much of what takes place in the book, in effect “willing” Adan to confront the scientists who have stolen his past. Interestingly enough, I didn’t choose the name for that reason, though. He was actually named after a historical figure from American history. If I told you who, it might be a mild spoiler, so I’ll leave it up to your imagination as to who it was. Suffice it to say, it was someone whom I saw as a sort of parallel to the kind of character I envisioned Will being.
Tolkien’s original name for Gandalf in The Hobbit was Bladorthin. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how that could ever be possible. Bladorthin just sounds comical, silly even. Gandalf, a combination of words meaning “wand” or “staff” and “elf” is magical, sagely, ancient, and mysterious all at the same time. In effect, it’s a very wizardly name, and yet it has a softer feel to it than say, Saruman, which is also wizardly, but more imperious and high sounding.
In all of these cases, the name had to fit the personality. When it didn’t, the name had to be changed. In essence, the characters chose their own names, because no other names just wouldn’t fit.
The names of places, things, and characters are integral to the story, but especially characters. Of all the thousands of words which make up a story, they are, I would argue, the most important. Get these right, and everything else comes easier. Get them wrong, and the story may never fully recover.
So what are some of your favorite names in fiction? Not just because you love the character, perhaps, but because the name itself is just so unforgettable and so perfectly captures the essence of who that person is? Let me know in the comments below.
And come back tomorrow where I’ll look at how the greatest author of all used names in a way so powerful, it truly is awe inspiring.