What's IN A Name? Well-chosen character names lend support to your story
By Helen Dunn Frame
Use the ancestry of names wisely and choose character's monikers selectively.
Err with the choice of a name for a child and the offspring may be called by a middle name or some nickname. Misname a character and your reader might wonder about the validity of your entire book.
Long before I began naming fictional characters, my husband and I struggled over what to call our Itty Bitty. We eliminated names like Richard that would become Dick, or Patricia that would inevitably result in the diminutive. And we did not want a name that would be gleefully abused by other kids.
Thinking we had found the solution, we chose Dana for author Richard Henry Dana, Jr. – allegedly a Frame ancestor. We failed to realize that names could be regional. Unfortunately, we did not know that Dana meant either bold or daring, chosen successor of a King, or a poet, and when derived from Swedish and Celtic from Denmark, Dana was used for the mother of Gods in myths. While living in Dallas, Dana considered using his middle name Edward, traced to Old English by one web site to indicate guardian of property and the mist. Instead, he eventually overcame the jibes from classmates.
At least his initials DEF didn't spell EAT like a daughter's of a friend. What if her husband's last name started with R? The author must think about the character's marital status as well as avoiding a first name that ends with the same letter as the first of the surname. Even though a reader may never say the name aloud, the writer might have to when hosting a reading. In fact, it's wise to roll off one's tongue all the names in the piece and to confirm meanings from several sources.
Unlike a child for whom you naturally select a name with a positive connotation, assigning an evil character a friendly handle only confuses the reader. If you call a guy Bubba while he really should have an empowering moniker like William Foster, III, you make him unbelievable. Select a funny name only if your character is humorous and choose something like Spike only if he fits that image. I smile at the double entendre each time CSI agents on TV refer to Captain Brass as "brass" – or maybe they're saying it with a capital "B"?
Back in the dark ages of last century, we didn't have access to sites with 11,000 possible names of all origins. And therefore we didn't know which name to search on for definitions. Now some web sites feature lists that can provide a starting point. Check Google to find – among others – Greek Last Name Meanings, Behind the Name, 11,000 Baby Name Meanings and Origins at Baby Names World, and Baby Names Baby Names Baby Names.
Hard copy sources still exist including the section called Given Names And Surnames From Around The World, from Building Believable Characters by Marc McCutcheon. There is also Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Book of Etiquette.
For my mystery Greek Ghosts, I drew inspiration from mythology books. Jennifer's lover, fleet-of-foot Jason, darts about as an Interpol agent. Leto's namesake was the mother-goddess whom Zeus impregnated with two archers, Apollo and Artemus. Admetus Melampus inherited two first names from cousins of the ancient Jason, labelling his lineage because Admetus appeared as one of Jason's Argonauts but Melampus didn't.
For fun let's mess with the names Helen Frame, Daryl Jung, Rowdy Rhodes, and the new editor, Julie Pierce. Suitable for either gender, Rowdy means loud in American English. Rhodes, from Middle English and Greek, translates to "dweller before the crosses and roses." Daryl, also for either sex, is French for dear and beloved. Korean Jung stipulates righteous.
While I don't know if she ever studied Latin, one source attributes Julie's first name to the Latin for soft-haired and youthful. English or Welsh, Pierce was adapted from the given name Piers, a derivative of Peter meaning "rock." It could be spelled seven other ways!
Helen translates from Greek as bright one or torchlight, and Frame from Gaelic meaning a root, stem, stock, or lineage. In order to provide a memory peg, I introduce myself "Helen, as in Helen of Troy, and Frame like in picture."
Whether you're about to have a baby or create a best seller, check out the meaning of potential names. You'll be better able to avoid the complex issue of moniker pitfalls in real life and fiction.
Helen Dunn Frame. A Syracuse University journalism school graduate, published in major newspapers, magazines and trade publications in the United States, England, and Germany. Her writing skills and love of travel led her to write her mystery novel Greek Ghosts. Email: email@example.com Web site: http://www.helendunnframe.com