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We all know that novelists devote a staggering amount of their energies on structural details: the enticing openings, the teasing suspense at the end of each chapter, the rising dramas, heartbeats and tensions of the tales’ closures, but what about the names of characters? Are there any significant meanings attached to these fictional names? Were these names conjured up by the magic of a random lottery or were they created by intelligent decisions for purpose and effect? It is certainly true that a striking, unusual character name can assist in locking the character’s dispositions, traits and experiences firmly into one’s memory. Some character names are so intriguingly memorable that these identities become a regular feature in everyday language, and even lexicographers may deem it worthy of gaining some space in reputable reference tomes. For instance, you can locate Charles Dickens’ Scrooge from A Christmas Carol in Chambers dictionary as a noun for ‘a miserly person’, and describe someone as Jekyll and Hyde, and you will instantly know that this person has a bizarrely dual personality. Thus the names bestowed upon the stars of riveting fictional stories most definitely have huge importance.
Character names which are perfectly matched to their personalities can leave a deep imprint etched in audiences’ minds. Emily Brontë’s darkly glamorous, Byronic hero, Heathcliff, has an aptly chosen name. His name refers to the wild elements of nature which reflects the wildness of his passionate love and obsession with Catherine. Furthermore, the solitary name Heathcliff, without a surname as a companion to his forename, creates an immediate sense of mystique to his character. A lack of a surname suggests an enigmatic family background, social status and identity. And how about sinister Barbara Covett from Zoë Heller’s brilliantly chilling Notes on a Scandal? Covett certainly coveted Sheba Hart with more than a tad too much passion and force of feeling. And let’s not forget Sheba Hart’s name. The name Sheba is a reminder of another adulterous Bathsheba; that is, in the Bible (2 Samuel 11: 2), David has an affair with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, after he sees the breathtaking beauty bathing. Her surname Hart, conjures up the image of the deer and the hunter, and Hart can obviously be a pun for the emotional icon of desire, the heart. Sheba is being ferociously chased and metaphorically hunted down by Barbara’s domineering possessiveness.
A highly ironic name can also have an equally enormous impact as a greatly suitable name. Take the innocuous sounding name, Angel Clare, from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The syllables in his name are soft, dreamy and harmonious. Surely Angel is a heavenly, malice-free creature as befits his name? Yet, Angel cruelly rejects Tess after her confession of her experience of sexual violation. This is the act of a cold, brutal monster in sharp and dramatic contrast to the divine connotations of his name.
A cleverly constructed character name may also summarize or encapsulate the whole plot or the main theme of the story. Thomas Hardy named Jocelyn Pierston’s love interest, Avice Caro, in The Well-Beloved. Avice means ‘bird’ and Caro can be linked with the word ‘carus’ which in Latin means ‘beloved’. The image of the bird has connotations of flight and escape. Thus, Avice Caro’s name suggests that Jocelyn’s ideal woman or beloved is constantly escaping and flying away from him, and that it is never possible to grasp the ideal in real life.
An inventive or distinctive name has a most bewitching power, since a fantastic character name can evoke a startling kaleidoscope of emotions, images, meanings, associations and memories to reflect over. If an author ponders deeply over each word choice, grammatical decision and sentence construction then it makes absolute sense for a writer to also spend a significant portion of their time contemplating names for the characters that drive their narratives. So what’s in a name? Everything.
Emily Cleaver is Litro's Online Editor. She is passionate about short stories and writes, reads and reviews them. Her own stories have been published in the London Lies anthology from Arachne Press, Paraxis, .Cent, The Mechanics’ Institute Review, One Eye Grey, and Smoke magazines, performed to audiences at Liars League, Stand Up Tragedy, WritLOUD, Tales of the Decongested and Spark London and broadcasted on Resonance FM and Pagan Radio. As a former manager of one of London’s oldest second-hand bookshops, she also blogs about old and obscure books. You can read her tiny true dramas about working in a secondhand bookshop at smallplays.com and see more of her writing at emilycleaver.net.