One of the most difficult choices every fiction writer must make is naming characters. There are times when it easy, when the character name is the root of an idea, or when the story involves an author’s stock characters. More often, however, the choice is painstaking. Over the years, I have invested in several baby-name dictionaries, not so much to increase the spectrum of possible names, but so that I could take the origin of various common names into account when making my selection.
For the most part, choosing a name for a character comes with a full understanding of the person being depicted. Simple names for simple characters. Difficult names for complex characters. Gooey names for sickly-sweet characters. Evil names for bad ones.
One thing an astute author must consider is the literary history of the name. When we give a character a name that has been used by other authors for other characters, our character will necessarily reference those other characters. Not just the most famous ones, either, but all of them. Every symbol inherently includes every pre-existing reference to that symbol. Every name includes every person who has ever had that name, including all the ones the author is unaware of. Symbolism is one place where an author has no control of their artistry. Symbols are universal and evolving.
Mary, one of the richest names in terms of history, can never be invoked in isolation of the Holy Mother, Magdalene and George M. Cohan’s grand old name. Even more daunting, the name will come to refer to characters still unwritten and people still unborn. In choosing a character name, we are doing more than simply providing an appellation for an imaginary actor. We are contributing to a world-wide on-going reading of a symbolic being.
It seems obvious that we cannot choose the name Hamlet without invoking the Dane. Ahab would represent our character, Melville’s character and the biblical King. Glenda will always involve a good witch. To pretend otherwise is pure foolishness.
That said, however, does not restrain our naming to falling into type. My character, Hamlet, does not have to be introspective. If he is not so, however, creates a contrast and reaction to expectation. Giving a character a historically inappropriate name may be used to create a cognitive dissonance in our readers, forcing them to re-adjust their thinking to see another aspect of the traditional meanings. Used well, this can be a powerful approach to naming.
One thing that will never work, however, it to proceed in ignorance. Pretending the name “David” won’t refer to the Hebrew king and invoke the underlying Amadeus, can only be construed as poor workmanship. It would be like using the color blue without being aware that the sky and sea are also, generally, blue or using a cross without expecting to invoke Christianity. Symbols evoke. Being aware of the underlying meanings is part of our art.