Friday, November 18, 2011

From the Trenches: Names

Lately I've been thinking about ensemble casts and how to keep characters straight. Part of this is because I recently read A VIEW FROM SATURDAY, and there are about 50 characters in there, and each of them has a weird connection to, like, everyone else. But none of them are characterized enough to be easy to remember.

Fast forward to the next week, during which we read Harry Potter. Over the course of that series, we are introduced to hundreds of characters, and we love them all. Games like this illustrate how rabid we are as fans.

But how does Rowling make us care, and distinguish, that many characters? Even though most of us probably can't name the 200 for which they ask, you'll recognize the names when you see them. (I just took it in the middle of class, and I got 80 in 8 minutes before I decided to start paying attention to the earth's crust again.)

It's all about the names. (Well, mostly. Part is the quirks to distinguish, but that's a post for another day.) She uses unusual, but simple, names. I can't stress how important SIMPLE is. We recently read the sequel to A WRINKLE IN TIME in my adolescent lit class, and some of the names in there are ridiculous. I would share them, but I can't remember them. And that is not what you want your reader to say.

What makes names memorable?

-No names too similar. Exceptions: When you're trying to make characters connect in your reader's minds, example: Fred and George Weasley
-Alliteration. Minerva McGonagall, Severus Snape, all the founders
-A connotation, such as "Filch" or "Draco." Filch brings to mind someone kind of slimy, someone you don't want to like, and Draco is kind of presumptuous.

But beware of introducing too many names at once. Make sure your characters are introduced with the name you will call them in the narrative, because nothing is more annoying than changing from Jim to James to Mr. Potter all on the same page. (Believe me. I read Russian lit, and Russian authors are notorious for that.)

How do you pick your names? How'd you do on the HP quiz? Do you agree with this?


  1. I got 93 out of 200—I didn't think animals would count, otherwise I might've gotten a nice even 50%! And I couldn't for the life of me remember Dean Thomas' name, though I could picture him quite clearly. Just kept thinking Seamus Finnigan every time I tried. BLAH. O_O

    But anyway. ^_^ Rowling's names are quite good for being able to remember them. It is definitely something to think about. I was reading Emma, and Austen kept switching what she was calling a couple people, and these people were of the same gender with the same last name, and I got so confused I had to keep rereading and correcting my ideas about who was saying what. It was a literary nightmare. O_o

  2. I agree with Rowling's philosophy. It is important to choose names that you can say, I get frustrated if I have to continuously think about the best pronunciation for a name (think Grinskll - a name from a short story I once read - Does that extra 'l' mean something?). I also like it when authors choose names with meaning (as in The Hunger Games); I believe that adds another layer to the story. Finally, made-up names are also fine (like those from Tolkien) but I think they have to roll off the tongue when you read.