As writers, we name a whole lotta stuff. Characters. Towns. Fantasy and science fiction writers name entire worlds. But a name isn’t just an arbitrary placeholder meant to differentiate people and places in your book.
In unillustrated works, the name is the face.
Think about that. You get a character’s physical description a handful of times in a book. Maybe you get clues to his personality a handful of other times. But how many times do you see his name? In a 300 page novel, the number is probably close to a thousand times. If your name sounds weak, the character will seem weak. If your name sounds brawny, the character will sound brawny. If your name is an unpronounceable mouthful, readers will skip right over it and probably not connect with your character very well.
I really want to know what Suzanne Collins was thinking when she named Peeta in The Hunger Games.
- Katniss–sounds feminine but fierce because of the “Kate/Kat” element. It also makes sense in District 12 because it’s the name of a wild plant. A good, solid name for her.
- Haymitch–great name for this character. He’s crotchety, older, a real scoundrel.
- Peeta–wha? Is it male? Is it female? Is it concerned with the ethical treatment of animals? Is it a type of bread (seriously, I hope this isn’t the reason)? Whatever it is, Peeta certainly doesn’t sound like an attractive male lead. Maybe that’s the point, but Peeta’s name still bugs me.
J.R.R. Tolkien used the power of connotation and our linguistic heritage to give Middle Earth its intense depth of history. This article in the New Yorker explores the power of brand naming and linguistic connotations. Naming isn’t the most important thing we do as writers, but we can’t afford to overlook it.