The Significance Of Character Names. (What's in a name?)
Happy New Year to all. I hope everyone had a joyous holiday season. A couple of weeks ago, a fellow writer, Jennifer Hockley, posted an interesting question on Twitter. One that I thought would make an excellent blog post. The question was, "How do you name your characters in your stories? Do the names have meaning?" I am not writing this post because I think that Jenn does not know the answer. I believe she was putting the question out for discussion. However, surprisingly enough, many do not know the answer, and there is an answer. For decades, writers, screenwriters, and others, including myself when I started writing, have done a great deal of research on this. Why is that significant? Simply put, people associate certain character traits with certain names.
When you have seen a newborn baby, or child, and found out their name, have you ever used this phrase, or heard it used, "He looks like a Michael," or, "She looks like a Margaret?" Or maybe you said or heard that because of the way a child acted. The fact is, it is true. This is why many storytellers and writers choose the names of their characters wisely. Because certain names are associated with certain traits, and depending on the character traits of the characters in your story, a name could mean the difference between a reader bonding with a character or not. Also, how the name is used is critical. For example, Mike or Mikey, portray a different impression than Michael. This applies to many names. Usually when the full name of a person is used, it implies a more professional or intimate relationship, one of respect or aging, versus the casual use of a nickname.
Vinny vs. Vincent
Tom or Tommy vs. Thomas
Tony vs. Anthony
There are many more examples.
Social Scientists believe that names produce a Dorian Gray effect, influencing personality, how we are perceived, and even physical appearance. In psychology, the "Dorian Gray Effect" named after the character, refers to the ways internal factors such as personality or self-perception, influence on physicality. Medically, a Dorian Gray effect is sudden aging, an abrupt change from seeming youthfulness to the reality and ravages of age, as can occur naturally or when the effects of plastic surgery and Botox treatments wear off. Named after "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1890), the novel by Oscar Wilde, in which Dorian gives his soul to remain young while the painting of him grows old. Despite a life of dissipation and worse, Gray stays youthful. Instead, his portrait records his dissolute deeds, becoming a hideous mask. When Gray destroys the painting, his face turns into a replica of the portrait.
Have you ever noticed that in almost every mob movie, the characters have names such as; Anthony, Michael, Paul, Frank, or Sunny? Often they are referred to as Tony, Paulie, Mikey, Franky, etc. Many times, such in the name Anthony or Michael, their proper name is used to show a sign of respect, or when someone is angry. Because of this association, people attribute certain names to certain types of people or behaviors. Also, some names are ethnic in nature. How many Irish women do you know that have the name Carmela? Therefore, certain names lead people to guess at a person's ethnic background, which in turn, they associate with a particular behavior. My name is as Italian as tradition can get. Caesar, and I look Italian. Having many Italian traits, I act Italian within the parameters of how I want to act. However, many people stereotype me as someone who could be associated with a criminal element, being a playboy, and dating many women. This stereotype is a result of how that ethnic group is portrayed in the movies. In reality, I am the farthest thing from that. Irish people are portrayed as heavy drinkers. I know many people of Irish descent that do not drink. I am NOT singling out Italians or Irish people, nor am I stereotyping them. My reference is used solely as examples.
How many mob movies have you seen based around Italians where the characters did not have multiple women? How about some older cop or fire movies based around the days when these professions were primarily Irish. Numerous scenes were taken in a bar showing constant drinking. The names of those characters are also names that are inherent to those ethnic groups. Therefore, this plants certain images in the minds of viewers which also transforms to those reading books. The Dorian Grey Effect. Because of this association, character names and their use are critical in books written. As writers, we all know that the most key part of any story is having a reader be able to relate to the characters. The tools we use are actions, expressions, words, and yes, NAMES. This is how we get our readers to relate to, and develop an association to our characters. Without this being successful, no one reader would ever make it to the end of a book.
Allow me to recap this. Many people view people of Italian descent as people with have a quick temper and other social traits. Many view someone who is Irish as using excessive amounts of alcohol and also a quick temper. People view those of German descent as having hard and cold personalities. I AM NOT stating any of this is true, NOR AM I singling out certain ethnic groups. These are just EXAMPLES. For these reasons, many actors may want to stop playing a role after a certain amount of time. They do not want people to think this is who they are, or all they can do. Think about it? How many times have you seen an actor on a talk show in their normal appearance versus the part the play? Ask yourself, what did you think? Most times, you do not like them because you have stereotyped them. You only see them in the roles they play, therefore, that is what you expect to see when you see them is any setting.
I believe it is true. I have given you medical proof, psychological proof, and real-world proof that the naming of your characters is critical. If for no other reason than what people have perceived themselves. One of the absolute greats. Clint Eastwood. When most hear his name, they think, "Dirty Harry." Sylvester Stallone, "Rocky," or "Rambo." Many actors do not mind that association, others do. However, what happens when you see them play a different role? Over time, the name is associated with a type of character and personality. Of course, for every rule, there are exceptions. A writer SHOULD take care of how they name their characters. Let me ask you another question. What do you think is the one most single important word every writer must not only know, but achieve in their books?
If a reader cannot associate or relate to a character, your book is doomed to fail. Building the initial association to a character and the reader early on is key to that reader turning to the next page. What happens when you watch a movie, and it's a slow starter? You turn it off, right? A book is no different except it's a story of words, and a visual perception you want your reader to develop. I hope I have explained why the names of your characters are important to your story, and the phenomena is real.
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Life Through A Mirror-When Murder Calls,
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A Woman's Fear-Female Abuse is a must-read for every woman, and yes, even men.
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