What's In A Name

Naming characters is an important part of writing.  While it might not seem so, names can imply a lot about a character because of what each of us has experienced in real life.  Both first names and surnames are important.

In most cases, the name people use to address us reflects their opinion of us.  The prime example of this is how people address us when we’re very young.  

People tend to use a diminutive form of a male’s first name before he matures.  Thus, “Jim” becomes “Jimmy”, “John” becomes “Johnny”, and “Bill” becomes “Billy”. It’s also very often that people change a “formal” sounding name like “James” to the diminutive “Jimmy” and “William” to “Billy”.  This is probably because formal names never seem as gentle and affectionate as the diminutive form. The method is the same as is used when talking to young children – adding a “y” to the name just as we often say “horsey” or “ducky” to a child instead of horse or duck.

Females often escape this diminution of their first name because many girl’s names already end in “y” or “ie”.  It’s our European culture following us through the ages.  Men are supposed to be strong and dominant.  Women are supposed to be weak, submissive and affectionate.  Boys get names that will represent those traits when they become men.  Girls get names that will continue to portray them as meek and loving.

Last names are just as important because they tell us where we probably came from.  In English, the word “smith” is usually associated with the blacksmith of old because that’s how people got surnames in past times.  The name “John Smith” is actually a contraction of the first name of “John” and his occupation, as in “John, the smith”, meaning John was a blacksmith.

The surnames of “Wright”, “Wheelwright”, and “Wainwright” are also contractions of the description of many male occupations.  A “wright” in the 700’s was a man who worked in wood.  As time progressed and the separation of skills developed, “wright” was added to other words to describe a particular occupation, thus, wheelwrights made wheels and wainwrights made wagons and carts. “Carpenter” is a surname derived in the same way from the Norman French “carpentier” and “Chandler” comes to English from the occupation in wealthy households of the person responsible for the supply of candles and soap for the household.

It’s important to note here that these surnames were the surnames of the common people.  The ruling class had names that described their social status and location. Surnames became contractions of the specific title, so in future generations, “John, The Earl of Dunmore” and “Harold, The Duke of Brandenburg” became just “John  Dunmore” and “Harold Brandenburg”.

When we’re in our teens and later, the way people use our names is indicative of how they think of us.  In a group, young males will often refer to each other by using only the last name, as in, “Johnson’s dating Sherry”, when referring to Todd Johnson.  If the two males are friends speaking privately, they’ll usually use first names, as in, “Todd, how was Sherry”.

Young women sometimes do the same when talking about men, but when talking with or about another woman, will usually use her full first name, as in “Valencia has such pretty hair”.  Valencia’s close friends will probably abbreviate her first name and call her “Val” unless she objects to that.  The short form is indicative of affection.

Names mean a lot to us because of what we’ve learned by knowing other people.  The right name matched to the personality of your character can tell the reader a lot about the character before you write anything else about them.

Let’s look at two men, both named “Sherwood Dunston”.  Both sign documents as Sherwood Dunston, but one goes by the name of “Woody” while the other insists upon being called “Sherwood”.  What personality traits would you assign to “Sherwood” and “Woody”?  Which one would most people want to call a friend?  

With women’s names, the difference can be even more dramatic.  A first name like “Anne” can convey feelings that she’s probably a little quiet, is very affectionate, and in general, a perfect lady.  “Trixie” on the other hand, can have quite different connotations.

Names with ethnic origins can also be very descriptive.  We understand that Jaques and Bridgette are probably French, and Frederico and Sophia are probably Italian, and Boris and Natasha are most likely Russian.  Why is that?  It’s because we’ve seen or read those names associated with people from those countries.  All it takes is the name and the stereotype associated with the country, and you have a part of a personality.