I’m reading the bible. All the way through.
It is a daunting task.
I’m not very far- about the 23rd chapter of Genesis. The very old Abraham and his wife Sarah have recently given birth to the son God promised them- Isaac. Isaac means “laughter.” Abraham and Sarah laughed when God promised them a son in their advanced age. (It’s a pun! God is funny after all!) By old, I mean she was like 90. If someone told me I would bear a son at age 90, I would laugh too. And then I would punch them in the face. But that’s irrelevant.
There is a meaning behind almost every important character name in the bible. David means “beloved.” Daniel means “God is my judge.” Rebekah means “captivating.” Jesus, a derivative of Joshua (Yeshua) means “Yehovah is Salvation.” However, it was also one of the most common names during that time period, so the name works on two levels: it speaks to Jesus’s purpose on earth, and is also suggestive of his living on earth as a “common” man.
Names are of exceeding importance in the bible.
Good writers put thought into their character’s names. They strive to find a name that works on a conscious as well as a subconscious level. At least, that’s what I hear. I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to choose my main characters’ names. Here’s how I go about it: I search my trusty baby book for an interesting protagonist title that I won’t mind writing and looking at over and over again, and then inevitably change my mind halfway through the piece. The time I put into selecting an acceptable (though not meaningful) name for the protagonist greatly overshadows the time I put into naming the secondary characters, who get the first random Jim, Ralph, or Christy that pops into my head.
Strategic writers would not do this.
Shakespeare didn’t do this. If one knew before reading or viewing the play Othello that the name Desdemona meant “ill-fated,” one might not be so shocked when Othello strangles the poor thing. (She was doomed when she was named.)
When J.K. Rowling first introduced Professor Snape in the Harry Potter series, I had a gut-feeling he was a nasty dude. Snape sounds… slimy and slithery and icky. But, he was Albus Dumbledore’s (another brilliant name choice) most trusted confidante. Could Snape of the Slytherins possibly be a good guy? There’s nothing like a well-chosen name to throw off a reader.
Some authors beat you over the head with symbolic character names. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s characters are easily identified by their telling titles: Chillingworth, Dimmesdale, and Pearl, for example. (Guess which one’s the bad guy? Okay, now guess the depressed guy? And, for the prize, which one is the gift from God?)
Then there are the great names that mean nothing at all; you remember them just because they sound cool. Sherlock, for instance, is a derivative of shear locks, which of course refers to one with very short hair. (Which is not how I remember Robert Downy Jr. in the film. Apparently, no one takes the etymology of that particular name seriously.)
Modern-day writers give their characters strategic and often symbolic names, as well. In The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the Jewish protagonist, Clay, is romantically drawn to Rachel Bacon. Rachel’s non-kosher last name is an allusion to forbidden love.
How much time do you put into selecting names for your characters? Where do you find the names? (Did you know there are online science-fiction name generators?) How important are character names?