I have a theory that a good book is comprised of good names.
You may disagree, but I have seen this theory proven more true than false in my reading; granted, we may not be reading the same books.
That’s what I’m here to talk about, the names in books, very critical in a great story, but sadly overlooked in the light of truly gorgeous covers and very handsome male counter-parts.
Think of your favorite book, the one that tops all the others, or at least the first of your favorites to pop into your mind. Can you remember the characters, not just for their enviable talents, or their many adventuresome ventures, but their names? Of course you can, because they made an impact; they were part of the character, and they mattered.
Now, consider the last book you read that you either didn’t finish or you trudged your way through. What did you think of those names? Can you think of the names? If you can, I bet you detest them, possibly thinking they did nothing to add to the characters’ nature. Or perhaps, you can’t remember them at all.
Time and again authors prove my theory – books with amazing characters, enchanting plot twists and an ending that leaves you satisfied and hopeful have chosen great names for their cast of characters. Books that fall flat have lackluster character names, forgettable from start to finish. Oh wait, I probably couldn’t bring myself to finish!
I do not believe that authors stumble upon these finely honed appellations; no, I believe they go in search of their characters’ names, as a parent does their child’s. Those “other” characters – the ones we forget – I don’t think their authors ever believed in them, not the way they should and it is reflected in their writing. Just because a name exists, doesn’t make it the right name for a character. Availability doesn’t mean a match.
Sometimes an author chooses names that hold strong public opinions - these are calculated choices that play into expected stereotypes. They give the reader cues and expectations that their characters either fit into or break out of. It helps the reader gain an immediate mental image in a group dynamic. One of the best examples is Ann Brashare’s The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series.
Reading the all important back cover, I met four characters by name and immediately my mind was off and running; painting mental images of these newly found, but still unknown friends. Let’s take a look at Brashares four characters and how their names revealed something of who they were from before page one.
Brigit- the name is impenetrable, yet exotic, I automatically conjure an image of a strong, sexy female, possibly you immediately see a blond, due to the European origins of the name.
Carmen- again, exotic, but spicy, someone who is en fuego, bold, determined, someone loud and expressive, as well as cultural, the image of a Latina surfaces.
Lena- soft, beautiful, creative, but not flamboyant, this name means ‘the bright one’ and has an aura. I didn’t immediately think, “She’s Greek!” This name conjures a character of mild temperament, gentleness, or of unaffectedness, rather than an ethnicity.
Tibby- different, artsy, obscure, her parents had guts and liked things unique, possibly passing that along to their daughter. As most names that end with the ‘ee’ sound, I think the name is cutesy, not feminine cutesy, but edgy cutesy. I thought that Tibby would be more overweight, not huge, just pudgy. I also considered her to be the least beautiful, but she wouldn’t care anyway. This name is so nick-nameable, that affection is sure to follow her.
When it came down to it, my assumptions based off the names on the back cover were basically correct, and to Brashare’s advantage. She put great thought into her character’s names, so much so that the characters were already evolving in my mind before I cracked the spine.
I’ll say it again. Good books are comprised of characters with good names. Names tell you a lot about a person, about their heritage, about the story of their lives – about what makes them, them and makes you want to walk a mile, or a chapter, in their shoes.
Let me know in the comments which other books or series you would like me to ramble on about!