Our names are amazing things. In a single, almost nonsensical string of words, we can be defined in total. Sometimes even just one word comprising one, two, three, or four (or a few more) syllables is enough to get the job done so astonishingly well that nothing else is needed – our given names. For example, all that I am sums to me, and I am Beth.
These all-encompassing definitions are precious gifts, given to us (for the most part) by our mothers and fathers. The reasoning and stories behind these gifts may be many and varied. They may be personal, such as being named in honour of a dear friend of family member. Our parents may be sculpting our future success, naming us for those with famous faces in hope that our namesakes’ good looks and talent rub off on us. We may be named for a certain time, maters and paters scouring lists of the most popular Bible, Victorian, or 60s names for our perfect definition. Our identities may come from nature, like Autumn, Dawn, and Daisy, or virtues, such as Patience and Charity, or we may be bestowed with a name of certain meaning. Names may simply come from parents liking the sound of it – my grandfather wished to call his eldest daughter Barbara Ursula Madden for the same reason any good father would. We may even be named for fiction – I’m guessing numbers of Harrys, Hermiones, Edwards, and Bellas are on the steady rise.
Names are important, and this applies to our characters as well. A character’s name comes to define them as much as our names define us. So we have to give them the right ones.
Upfront, I’ll say I’m not a fan of putting excessive research behind character names, searching for names that reflect the personality and story that I’ve built for them – the names Malfoy (bad blood) and Katniss (belonging to an arrow) come to mind. Perhaps for some authors, naming in this way creates a special link between them and their characters, as well as another layer of intrigue for readers to research, another way for them to get involved with the stories they love. While uncovering these links can be interesting, I find such naming to be a little unrealistic.
Another method I’m not fond of, especially when it comes to writing fantasy, is making names up from nothing. I really enjoyed all the Shannara books, but usually it was easy to tell (apologies to Terry Brooks if this isn’t the case) when a name had been pulled out of thin air. Even if I like a character, if their name is hollow, if it feels like it’s not a real, I can only grow so close to them. I’m not innocent of making up names – used to put any sounds I pleased together to do it, in fact. Now I try to follow some kind of structure, and give characters from similar parts names that sound like they derive from the same language and culture – right now what I usually do is make names based on the Japanese alphabet but aren’t necessarily Japanese names, for example, Kero, Hari, and Narani.
When it comes to giving characters from our time and our world names, I’m not entirely sure how I go about it. At least, not with the Western names. A few minor characters I’ve named after friends, family, other fiction characters, and even after judges as a bribe during a choir talent competition. For major characters, so far as I recall, I’ve chosen names that occurred to me while writing very basic plans. Names that I like, and suit the bare bones of the character being shaped. I should have been more careful, kept a log of my thoughts or something to that effect. Not recalling the very basic origins of my characters in detail may be something I regret later in life. But, as I said, in general this only applies to Western names. My Japanese characters are an entirely different kettle of fish.
Every one of my Japanese characters has been named after someone, be it school student, teacher, friend, or anime character. A protagonist called Miho was named for my sister Frannie’s host sister from the year I began work on her story. Miho’s sister was named for the second Japanese student we hosted here in Australia, Anri. Miho and Anri’s mother was named for Misato Katsuragi, the legendary Captain/Major from Shinseki (Neon Genesis) Evangelion.
I’d had all of these Japanese names for a while when one day during Speak Salon (Japanese class) my teachers began helping me choose the Kanji characters for each name. I now have a long list of every single Japanese name in the story written in English, Romaji, and Kanji, which I hope to print in the back of the book should it be published.
For each name, my teachers gave me several options of Kanji, explaining the meanings behind each and how commonly they were used. Near the end of this choosing process, we came across one of the loveliest little coincidence I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience. If it weren’t in truth a total coincidence, I probably wouldn’t have stood for it, given my little spiel before about unrealistic naming. But this isn’t unrealistic at all. I don’t think. Not in real life.
Remember I mentioned a Miho? Her Kanji look something like this:
Her sister Anri’s Kanji look like this:
And their mother Misato’s Kanji look like this:
Do you see? Do you see even though my command of the paintbrush in Paint is abysmal?
Even though the pronunciation of one of the characters is different, one character from Misato’s name is used in each of her daughter’s. The two have been unintentionally named for their mother. This is actually a common practice in Japan, I believe – parents using their own Kanji in their children’s names.
I really liked that even though their names came from totally different sources, this special link between the three was created by accident through their Kanji characters, making them even more like a family. This is probably the closest I will ever come to giving extra meaning to a character’s name.