gandalf

The power of a name

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.

Powerful Tools

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

gandalfWhen I wrote The Chronotrace Sequencethe 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.

Name wisely

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.

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Comments (5)

  1. Abbey Stellingwerff August 22, 2017 at 1:04 pm

    Great post! I love seeing how authors use names in their stories. Charles Dickens springs to mind. His characters always have such memorable names… Pumblechook, Scrooge, etc. The names of his characters are reflective of their personalities. J.K. Rowling did the same thing with the characters in Harry Potter. The name “Delores Umbridge” perfectly sums up that awful woman.
    I find the science of sounds as related to names really interesting… That an “S” can sound harsh, so villains with names starting with an “S” sound evil (like Sauron or Saruman), while “F” is a soft sound, so characters named “Finn” sound more heroic.

    • DJ Edwardson August 22, 2017 at 1:25 pm

      Yes, Dickens! And Delores Umbridge is certainly a very evocative name.

      And you’re right about S and F sounds. I’m sure there must be studies and papers written on this sort of thing, but Finn definitely has a more friendly, adventurous ring to it.

      I didn’t mention this in the post, but this whole “sound” aspect makes me think this naming business is somewhat akin to music composition where different sounds evoke different emotions.

  2. Jenelle August 23, 2017 at 11:20 am

    Not gonna lie, naming things is one of my favorite parts of being an author. I spend WAY too much time pouring through baby-name websites and finding the origins and meanings behind certain names for practically every character… even tertiary ones, at times… which is time-consuming… but so much fun.

    Loved Abbey’s comment about the science of sounds. I use that a lot in my writing, as well and spend time playing with various sounds. For example, if I want to name a river, I’m going to use a lot of “liquid” sounds: r, l, w, etc. If I’m naming a dragon or a gryphon, I often find myself circling the more “plosive” sounds: k, p, b, d, etc

    Finding a name that fits a character perfectly, and also looks nice on paper is, in my opinion, a kind of art form. I love it when a name sounds and looks beautiful.

    Character names that I love because they both sound and look cool:
    Galadriel, Gwenwhyvar, Halt, Haplo, Hugh the Hand (I also love alliteration), Cimorene, Morwen, Hualiama, Eilonwy, and Alanna.

    Good to see you blogging again! Hope it’s an indication that you are feeling better on a more consistent basis!

    • DJ Edwardson August 24, 2017 at 10:09 am

      An artform-yes! I totally agree. It’s like this mini book within a book. Each name tells a story.

      I’m pretty much the same way when it comes to obsessing over names. I spend a ton of time on Google Translate, looking for words from other languages. I also keep a running list of archaic or exotic words to use as inspiration.

      And yes, as Abbey pointed out sound is so important. Sometimes, I use a name just because is sounds good. You’re onto something with those river sounds and dragon sounds. Those letters do lend themselves so well to such things.

      Eilonwy is a name I have always loved. All of those Celtic/Welsh/Gaellic sort of names can be so poetic. I’ve not heard of Gwenwhyvar, but I love that name!

      Of course pretty much every name in Tolkien’s books is spot on. Galadriel is certainly one of the most beautiful, though.

      And hurrah for alliteration!

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