“Call me Ishmael.”
A name is like the cover of a book. For better or worse, it tints our first impression of a person–would you be drawn into the pursuit of the Great White Whale by a guy named Poindexter? Names can also powerfully shape our self-perception. If I ask who you are, you’ll likely respond with your name, and you won’t be happy if I get it wrong on our next meeting. Our names may carry a deeper meaning in their etymology that influences our behavior–if I know that Fred is derived from a Germanic word that means “peaceful,” it might subconsciously make me less combative. Or not. Names connect us to our family trees, and our parents often reinforce that by selecting a first or middle name in honor of a beloved relative or ancestor, though it may unintentionally cool our affection for Great Uncle Jebeziah or Granny Gertrude later in life.
Pretty or not, names have power. Children assign nicknames to their peers denoting respect, shame, affection, ridicule, or fear. These tags can elevate or destroy social status in an instant. Some of them may follow a person their entire life–heaven help “Stinky.” Though Romeo declared, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” we might be less inclined to sniff a “flatulentia.”
Many a story revolves around the idea that knowing a person’s true name grants a magical power to control them. Rumpelstiltskin, anyone? Mxyzptlk? Some names have a magic of their own and propel their bearers with the force of destiny: “Aragorn, son of Arathorn, heir of Isildur, King of Gondor.”
Most of us adopt a variety of names during the course of our lives. Some are official titles, others may be aliases, business names, pen names, pet names, nicknames, handles, hashtags, “hey you,” and so on. In some cases, our identities are as malleable as our names, and we adopt different personas to fit the demands of a given situation or our current mood. At times, one name isn’t enough to encompass the extent and complexity of a person, God being the foremost example. A quick skim of the Bible will yield hundreds of names for God, some of His own declaration, some springing from human attempts to comprehend and describe Him. “Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace”–that’s from a single verse in Isaiah. You get the idea.
An American soul singer and songwriter named Shirley Ellis even wrote a little ditty about names that rose to #3 on the U.S. music charts in 1965, and you’ll probably recognize it. She called it The Name Game:
Shirley, Shirley bo Birley Bonana fanna fo Firley
Fee fy mo Mirley, Shirley!
Come on everybody!
I say now let’s play a game
I betcha I can make a rhyme out of anybody’s name
Please be careful about the names you plug into Shirley’s template. Your friends Chuck and Ruby may never forgive you. Just sayin’.
My wife and I spent months pondering names for each of our three children. Something strong, yet approachable. Significant, but not too weighty. A name that tumbled trippingly off the tongue, inspiring birdsong and heroic anthems. Memorable, but also impossible for playground comedians to convert into a hurtful label. Perhaps most important of all, nothing remotely connected to any of the little hellions my wife had the misfortune to babysit during her teenage years. I think we were mostly successful, though the ingenuity of playground comedians is not to be underestimated.
I have a similar struggle choosing names for the characters in my stories, and I’m rarely satisfied with my final selections. Some authors are simply brilliant at this, and we get wonderful, musical, emotionally-resonant names that go a long way toward creating a vivid image in our minds: Bilbo Baggins, Aslan, Aldus Dumbledore, Huckleberry Finn, David Copperfield. On the dark side, we find names like Smaug, Tash, Voldemort, Injun Joe, and Uriah Heep that clash and grind and leave a bad taste in our mouths.
What about you? Do you think character names are important? What are some of your favorites…or a few you wish you’d never heard?