Names: Clues to Character

Names are important.

In my novel, Shelter of Leaves, names carry meaning. The first paragraph below is an excerpt from the deleted prologue.

Beside her swimming pool, Elaine closed her eyes against the sun. She imagined a drifting boat flanked by trees; crimson, marigold and burnt sienna leaves spun to the ground. Brilliant leaves signaled good fortune, after all she’d married a man surnamed Owen. The name meant “wellborn” in Greek.

Early on, I named a main character in my book Sabine. An image of Degas’ painting “The Rape of the Sabine Women” appeared while I was writing. The painting was based on the 750 BC legend of the abduction of the women from the Sabine tribes by Roman men who wanted wives. The name sounded lyrical and exotic and as I considered other character names, I was inspired by references to names that had significance for my book’s characters. Note:In 750 BC the word rape meant abduction.

Randolph, another of my character names, means Shield Wolf in Old English. His full name Randolph Edward Lewis IV, conveyed wealth and a long southern heritage. He imagined himself as shielding others. Sometimes he was able to do this, sometimes not.

The character Sharp used his last name as his first. It implied a smart person, tough, sharp-shooting, with perhaps an intelligence career.

Jude is a Hebrew name meaning ‘to praise’. Jude considers himself a farmer who planned to live out his years at his home place with his parents and sisters, and someday, a bride. Self-effacing and kind, he praised the mountains and valleys, rivers and woods that were his home.

Lavinia, a name from Roman mythology, sounded beautiful rolling off the tongue. Both Shakespeare and Dickens used the name for characters. In Shelter of Leaves her boyfriend distorted the name, calling her La-La. She endured the childish pet name for a while.

Frederick climbed mountains as a boy and a young man. Later he attended law school. A successful man, he had high standards for his son. He berated his son Freddie, trying to pound him into the proper mold. Freddie, named after his father, rebelled against his father’s high expectations. Always a junior, he struggled to become himself. Over and over again, he failed.

Let’s apply this knowledge.

In reading fiction I pay attention to names, wondering if the names fit the character’s personality and life circumstances. Outlandish names often signal a humorous read. Peculiar, improbable names could mean the reader’s in for a mind-bending fantasy or a science-fiction adventure. Fiction writing consists of numerous parts that need to work together like a machine for a satisfying read. I consider name choice as one of the important parts.

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