The considerable problems I have with naming my babies

I’m obsessed lately with names. Specifically, character names. More specifically, my character names. I don’t have kids, and aside from possible upcoming pet purchases (unlikely in the short- to mid-term, but yes, my cat’s name will be Mr. Meowgi, and shut up if you don’t get the reference), my stories are my babies, and I’ll name them as I see fit.

In my first novel, I deliberately kept the name of my hero Thomas Friesen deliberately flat. Thomas himself was a wallflower of sorts, and a name that stood out from the crowd would really not suit his role as observer in his own life. Really, Thomas Friesen? It’s the John Smith of Mennonite names. Thomas’ name was originally Corey, but I couldn’t bring myself at this stage to get so meta with my output. I had a little more fun with the other characters, switching their names about on alternate flights of whim and boredom. Page Adler’s last name was initially Axworthy, but it seemed too obviously a pun considering her overall hatefulness. Warren’s name was Jacob at one point, and his last name (and Danae’s as well) was Chuback, after a woman I used too work with. Aubrey’s name was similarly altered from the more exotic Goren (I had been watching ER at the time), and Danae was always Danae, after the adorable cynic in the daily comic strip Non Sequitur.

Now, with the onset of second novel nervous syndrome (SNNS), I’m torn between wanting to be more brave and unique in my choices and simply repeating my aim toward the ordinary. My lead character has had his name switched twice already, but I still lean on the side of plainness. So far, I’ve settled on Lloyd (it does need to be a ‘L’ name), but why not Landon, or Lyle, or Larry (eww, too Three’s Company)? Or Leviticus? I do have one character with an absolutely spectacular appellation, but he’ll remain a secret for right now, and even so, the name is a combination of two names I came across in my northern Manitoba adventure.

Not in me the bravery necessary to assign a label that functions as a designation to differentiate oneself from the hordes and at the same time somehow captures the quality of the character in its construction of letters and subjective definitions. Do I have the ‘nads to create a Billy Pilgrim (Slaughterhouse 5) or a Pip (Great Expectations)? And I don’t mean the obviously weird names associated with all things fantastic and laden with ogres and elves. Watch, I’ll come up with three serviceable names on the spot for the Tolkien wannabes: Grunt Mastick. Herin Morelack. Oggle Bluntmeyer. Feel free to use those, I’ve got plenty more. Wrently Flymoogy. Carellva Qiklis. Blrky Wsmng.

I know I shouldn’t put too much stock in such things, especially as I’m the all-powerful deity in these worlds, and what I say goes, and I can always change it later. But I yearn for both the talent and the guts to assign a name that calls attention to itself, yet fits with the scheme and layout of the story. Lionel Essrog is a bizarre name, but in the context of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, it is perfection. Ditto Lethem’s dynamic duo in The Fortress of Solitude, Dylan Erbus and Mingus Rude. Man, I freaking LOVE the name Mingus Rude.

Or perhaps the more overtly strange, the Dickensian; grotesquely ornate names of great heft and stature. Lauren Groff’s The Monsters of Templeton had a character named Marmaduke Temple, another burdened with Aristabulus Budge. I don’t have the novel in front of me, so I may be mistaken about the second, but it was something like that. I adore those names, somehow ridiculous yet conveying an air of yesteryear authority.

Yes, I know that very often character names become iconic because of the novels they’re in, not because of the specific makeup of consonants and vowels. Why is Holden Caulfield a great name? Because Catcher in the Rye is great. Harry Potter doesn’t appear the most prepossessing of names, but try telling that to the vast hordes of crazies. Ian Fleming chose James Bond as his hero’s name because it was the most boring name he could think of, yet who out there doesn’t think he’s the epitome of danger-cool?

So, character names. Your thoughts? What are your favourites, and why? Gimme some feedback, I’m dyin’ here.

  1. Tolkien, of course, used etymology, linguistics, and Norse mythology as the source of most of his names — most Hobbitish names come from Middle English roots, and all the names of the Kings of the Mark are words for “King” in various ancestors of modern English. The dwarves (and Gandalf) in The Hobbit are all named for dwarves in the Elder Edda, IIRC.

    I always liked Mervyn Peake’s names in Gormenghast (not to mention Mervyn Peake’s own name!), though they’re often unsubtle — Sepulchrave and Sourdust wouldn’t fly in a non-fantasy novel — but some of the others, like Fuschia Groan, Mr. Flay, or my favourite, Alfred Prunesquallor, are lots of fun.

    Isaac Asimov had some great names in Murder at the ABA, including the protagonist, Darius Just (based on Harlan Ellison). I seem to also remember a character named something like Agamemnon Smith (I can't remember the first name, but it was a famous Greek character that started with 'A'). There's a fun sequence where Smith is giving his name to a clerk, and is surprised when she asked him to spell "Smith" and not "Agamemnon". The clerk explains that there are at least a dozen ways to spell Smith/Smithe/Smyth/etc, but only one for Agamemnon.

    I've always had problems with names for characters in RPGs, starting from my D&D days. For a while, on World of Warcraft, I just went through a typography glossary and named my characters for interesting sounding entries, such as Hacek, Macron, or Yogh.

  2. I forgot to mention this in the last comment — an acquaintance of mine uses an interesting scheme for naming his characters. All the sympathetic characters are named from north/south streets in Toronto, like Islington, while the unsympathetic characters are named for east/west. Whether the street name becomes a first or last name depends on the sound. Islington (Izzy) was a first name for a character.

  3. I think you’re right to be sweating the names; if you don’t know the character’s name, then how do you know who they are? (Of course, having just finished reading The Road, this isn’t necessary an absolute rule, but I wouldn’t be surprised if McCarthy actually knew the names of the characters.)

    I usually start with a vague idea of who the character is, but it never crystallizes until I’ve got a name for them.

    Personally, I like references. Even if the readers never get the allusion, I still like to have it, because it helps keep me on track. Of course, sometimes you just happen to know someone with a cool name, and then you just have to use it in a piece of fiction.

  4. I always liked the name Malcolm.
    It sounds more exotic than it is.

    Sort of the opposite of the Goon Show‘s use of “Fred”. In his last interview with the CBC, Peter Sellers explained that “We used ‘Fred’ because it ruins everything you attach it to. For instance: ‘Is this is a genuine Rembrandt?’ ‘Oh, yes! A genuine Fred Rembrandt!'”

  5. My good buddy Tomson Highway told me that when naming characters, you need to go to the ether where the story itself originates. Thus, he suggests grabbing a great big, thick phone book (Yellow Pages work, too), closing your eyes, flipping to a page at random and jabbing your finger down anywhere on the page.