Writers on Writing #32: Jacob M. Appel
Expecting parents often spend many hours over the course of many months searching for a perfect name for their future baby. Those efforts are well spent: research shows that a child’s first name can affect her behavior and even whether she chooses to study mathematics or literature. In contrast, many aspiring writers expend little energy when choosing names for their literary children. Instead, they develop rich, three-dimensional characters—and then they tag on run-of-the-mill names that reveal little about their creations. But character names do matter. Holden Caulfield and Scout Finch would likely be far less memorable if called Jack Smith and Mary Jones. Effective names should be distinctive, yet not distracting. On the one hand, each character should have a name distinguishing enough for readers to remember easily. In this regard, context matters: Gwendolyn is a rather distinctive name, for example, unless your story also features women named Gwyneth and Guinevere. On the other hand, characters’ names should not prove so implausible as to steer readers away from the narrative. In the real world, people may actually have first names like “Pickle” and “Wednesday” and “Doorknob,” but such names in fiction serve as colossal distractions. Similarly, characters names may prove distracting in relation to each other. You might get away naming a child Adolf—although with difficulty today, considering the name’s historical connotations. But you cannot have siblings named Adolf and Benito without raising unwanted alarm bells.
The most crucial rule, when naming characters, is to choose names that are demographically appropriate for their subjects—unless you offer the reader an explanation of why you are doing otherwise. Among the features that can be conveyed by names are gender, ethnicity and age. Since names cycle in and out of style over time, some names sound old-fashioned and others new-fangled. A female character named Ida or Bertha is most likely to be elderly in a contemporarily-set story, although she might be a young girl in a story set in 1890. If you are writing a story set during World War I, you had best avoid naming characters Brianna or Makayla, while both are highly popular names today. Fortunately, researching names by generation is now extremely easy. The Social Security Administration lists on its website the one thousand most common baby names given each year in the United States since 1879 (available here). Should you choose a name not on this extraordinarily expansive list, you ought to have a convincing reason for doing so.
While there is no comparable list of names broken down by race or ethnicity, surnames can often reveal a character’s background; moreover, certain cultural groups favor certain first names. For instance, Philip Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, has both a first name and a last name that define him as Jewish-American. Of course, in the real world, there are non-Jewish Nathans and non-Jewish Zuckermans—and there may even be non-Jewish Nathan Zuckermans—but the average Nathan Zuckerman will be a Jewish-American, and Roth taps into this reality when naming his character. If Roth’s breakthrough novel of Jewish identity and sexuality, Portnoy’s Complaint, had been named O’Reilly’s Complaint or Giordano’s Complaint, the name choice for the title character would have left the average reader befuddled. Similarly, if Mario Puzo’s Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather had been Don Nathan Zuckerman, the tone of the story would instantly have turned comic and not tragic.
While demographic specificity is essential for an effective character name, such precision alone is not sufficient to generate an ideal appellation. The right name should also fit the character’s personality or meaning. So “Scout” Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird lives up to her moniker through her exploration of the world around her. In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald finds a suitably flashy name for his title character, Jay Gatsby (the former James Gatz, a far less glitzy name), and an equally brutal one for the predatory Meyer Wolfsheim. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael, the perennial outsider, is a perfect foil (name-wise) for the mad Captain Ahab. As much as distinctive names are important, occasionally more generic names will serve a stylistic purpose. In Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” the characters have notably nondescript Yankee names, likely designed to remind her audience that these characters are just like themselves.
Not naming characters at all can also function as a powerful device. Some characters, of course, should never be named. If a character’s role in the story is purely instrumental, such as a postman whose sole function is to deliver a love letter, one is usually better off identifying that character only by this role (ie. “the postman”), so as to avoid creating a false expectation on the part of the reader that the character will play a larger or recurring role in the story. However, not naming a major character can also be done to a potent effect, especially if the goal is to distance that character from the reader. In Flannery O’Connor’s classic short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the author often chooses to identify her characters by their familial roles (eg. “the grandmother”), rather than by name, in order to keep us from identifying too deeply with them, as she intends to slaughter them at the end of the narrative.
Here are six additional tips to keep in mind when naming characters:
1. Avoid ambiguity. In real life, people often have names that are ambiguous with regard to gender (or age or ethnicity) or that can function as either first or last names. Jordan or Sydney could easily be a man or a woman. Yet little is gained by assigning such names to characters (unless, of course, they are transgendered or have parents who wish to make a statement about gender), when more clearly gendered names can lead to greater clarity. Ambiguous names are not the craft device to use in order to convey realism.
2. Pay attention to sound and rhythm. Unless your goal is comic, a five syllable first name will often pair poorly with a five syllable last name. Take care to avoid strange letter combinations. Albert is a fine name, but Albert Bellport and Albert Gilbert are rough on the ears—and on the reader. Never use a name unless you have said it aloud ten times and you haven’t burst out laughing.
3. Give animals “animal names” and people “people names.” Readers have a hard time adjusting to human beings named Rover and dogs named Dr. William C. Jackson, Jr. Don’t make reading any more difficult than it already is. If your heroine is named “Flopsy,” she had best be a rabbit.
4. Make certain that names match relationships. Nothing pains an editor more than discovering sloppy naming patterns in stories, such as encountering a character whose father and maternal aunt share the same unusual surname. (Women sometimes change last names when they marry, but—at least in Western cultures—their sisters do not change their names along with them!) A widow may be Mrs. Jones or Ms. Jones, or even The Widow Jones, but not Miss Jones. Names reveal familial patterns, and those patterns should make sense.
5. Don’t be too clever. Some aspiring writers are tempted to name their characters after colors or states, or to create amusing combinations of given names and surnames like Justin Case and Rose Blossom. If you have to ask yourself, “Am I being too cute?” the answer is almost always yes.
6. Seek uniqueness. If possible, your character should be the only literary figure in possession of the name you have chosen for her. At a minimum, make certain that your character does not share the name of another leading protagonist. It may be perfectly legal to name your heroine Dorothea Brooke, but you’re announcing to editors that you’ve never read Middlemarch. I also recommend seeking a name not shared by any other living human being—actually an easy task, if one uses creative spellings for surnames. No need to antagonize a stranger by naming your murderess after her daughter, even inadvertently. A simple Google search can avoid such a lawsuit.
Finally, choose names you actually like. In naming your characters, you are branding yourself—creating the next generation of Sartorises or Joads or Angstroms, characters who may recur in your work throughout your literary career. You want to select a literary name that will make you proud when connected with your own on the tongues of your admiring fans.
Jacob M. Appel is the author of the novel The Man Who Wouldn't Stand Up and the forthcoming short story collection Scouting for the Reaper. Jacob is a graduate of the MFA program in fiction at NYU. He teaches fiction at the Gotham Writers Workshop and practices medicine at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.