Naming characters is a strange thing. Do you want an ordinary name that rolls off the tongue? How about a name rooted deep into connotations and semi-hidden entendres? Or maybe you want to create an entirely new world, where oddly-spelt and original names are the norm.
These challenges face all authors, and thus was the reason for my recent post, in which I listed five unusual names (derived from local streets) and requested that my readers provide a brief backstory for the character.
And so thank you to Samir, Morgan R. Lewis, Spider42, The Background Story and Leslie for participating in this experiment, which, along with the responses of my university classmates, provided some interesting results. Let’s explore…
Definitely an odd name, and perhaps the source of most diversity with his character. The strangeness of his name provoked several people to explore the origin of and reason for his name — Boorolong was described as many things, from a “fierce dwarven warrior” to a “modern-day African-American voodoo adherent in New Orleans”, casting him into the role of an other-worldly type fellow, and thus explaining his name’s oddity. Other people, myself included, ignored, or perhaps temporarily disregarded, his unusual name, and created a range of different lives for the fellow.
Leslie told us of a strict and wealthy man burdened by loneliness; Spider described a rugged, intense man of Eastern European origin; in my seminar, Boorolong became an isolated business man trying to overcome racism, a scruffy man with a green-thumb, and a prisoner with a life-sentence and a heart of gold.
Yes, Boorolong Dumeresq lived numerous incredible lives. I shall be posting my interpretation of his story tomorrow; of the five characters, Boorolong received the most attention, and I suspect this post will be long enough without adding his profile at this time.
Interestingly, Jessie, with her much more common first name, received many alike backstories across the board. Only in one occasion was Jessie a male; in all others, she was a woman, aged 20 to 30, and quite often a thing of beauty. A notable exception was Leslie’s girl — “a 12 year old detective” who uses ”wit and cunning to foil the evil plots of adults”. Unexpected, and intriguing!
Samir mentioned Jessie as being of African descent, which was a frequent assumption of my uni friends upon hearing the name “Niagra” — a good example of name connotations and the effect they have on the character. Other people told of her attractive features, using such words as “perky”, “dark”, “bright-eyed” and so forth.
Here is my brief (and somewhat cynical) mention of Jessie’s personality:
Jessie Niagra was, in every clichéd definition of the word, gorgeous. Mossy green eyes, sun-bleached locks; skinny at the waist, but bountiful above. To say she turned heads was an understatement.
Of course, her admirers couldn’t see the bruises beneath her shirt. Ironically, with the tie-dye patterns of blue, purple and yellow, her bruises, themselves, were sickly, eerily beautiful. Nothing out of place on Jessie Niagra.
Connotations come into play again here, and with good reason: with names like “Marsh” (as in wet land) and “McDonald” (as in ee-i-ee-i-oh), many people wrote of a farmer, gardener and other men tied to the land. But strangely, poor McDonald received some harsh words from my university class! He was rash, stern and generally unliked. Needless to say, I was relieved to read my followers’ responses, which were much more favourable.
I would like to make special mention to Morgan’s character profile, which was the only one to state that Marsh, or Marcia, was a woman. Thinking outside the box!
Here is my version of Marsh McDonald — God bless this poor fictional man for taking the brunt!
Marsh McDonald was stern, steely and thoroughly unliked by all who came into contact with him. The thick, stormy caterpillars that lived above his eyes were drawn into a constant scowl of disapproval, and his mouth appeared lipless in its frozen grimace.
Each morning, Mr McDonald opened his door with a head-splitting screech, and proceeded to the hobble down his path to the line of thorny bushes near his mailbox. There he would stand for at least five minutes, twisting lightly at the hip to survey his garden on the left, the right, and left again. If anything were out of place, be it a scrap of litter or a single snapped stem, he would growl—literally growl, as many innocent passer-bys had certified—before fixing the marred spot with a swift, sure hand.
Ash Tree Boxhill
Ash varied in gender amongst all the writers, but a common theme throughout was the idea of this character being inclined to a “hippie” lifestyle, or at the very least, his/her parents lived in such a way. In fact, Spider rather neatly summed up the dominating themes in his profile: “either totally quirky and oddball, or someone who is sober and quiet but got saddled with a kooky name and grumbles about it.”
With a name like Ash Tree Boxhill, it was difficult to write a lengthy profile without attempting to explain its origins, and so it was that each and every response from my class did exactly that, either with in-depth explanations of her conception in the bushland, surrounded by Ash Trees and Boxhills, or, as with mine, a brief mention of less-than-attentive parents.
There were only three people alive who knew the truth about Ashley Boxhill—the truth being that, in some cruel twist of fate, or, more accurately, in one too many cruel twists of lime juice into tequila, Ash’s parents had agreed that their future daughter’s middle name would be Tree. For obvious reasons, she chose not to tell anyone that her name was actually Ash Tree—the ridicule would be unbearable.
And so, with the exception of her parents and of Ash herself, only one person knew that her middle name was not ‘Katherine’, as she so neutrally claimed for herself. That person was Charlie Oscar Bernard Webb.
Ash didn’t know if it was the way he smiled at her, or his sympathy in the face of her secret … Or maybe it had something to do with the fact that his own initials resulted in the unfortunate result of C.O.B. Webb. All Ash Tree Boxhill knew for sure was that she loved Charlie more than she loved her fake middle name. And that was a lot.
This fellow, for whatever reasons, encouraged many people to think outside the box and, in some cases, go completely against the grain. Leslie’s profile, as well as a classmate’s, described an unfortunate girl given the masculine name by a disappointed father, who went on to become something of a tom-boy. Spider and Morgan were in the same vein, drawing a derisive interpretation from the word “waterfall”, which seemed too florally to be taken seriously. And Samir’s profile was akin to my own — we also took the connotations of waterfall and flipped them on their head, creating a rather dark and depressing image.
When people hear the name ‘Waterfall’, it casts a great many images of something, and someone, exotic, refreshing and entirely desirable. Barney was none of these things.
Deep into his twenties, it seemed that the boy was forever doomed to display his awkward teenage years. While his schoolmates had begun to sport five o’clock shadow on their necks, Barney’s face had remained gawkily hairless, doing nothing to hide his weak chin. The shirts that clung enviably to the muscles of his companions hung limp and loose on his skeletal frame, until he shamefully took to wearing at least three layers to add bulk, even in the heat of summer.
“You’ll grow out of it,” his mother assured. “Give yourself time.”
Ten years on, Barney was fed up with giving himself time. He was tired of waiting for the mockery to stop; he was tired of waiting for his body and brain to sync up with the idea that he was an adult; but mostly, he was tired of tracing the scars along his wrists, wondering what the heck went wrong with his life.
So there you have it! Names carry a great deal of weight, but they shouldn’t be the focus of your writing; they should be a mere aspect of the characters themself, with all their intricacies and struggles and lifetime of memories.
So it doesn’t matter if your protagonist’s name is Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Esther Greenwood or Winston Smith, and if your villain’s name is Tom Riddle, Heathcliff, Prince Humperdinck or Mr Hyde (and bonus points if you know which books these characters are from!). Just remember what is truly important — creating a person who your readers will want to follow.
Compared to that, names don’t mean a thing.
- Love The Bad Guy (and His Name)