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Names with a meaning - do they really make sense? Or am I just lazy?

Vafnir

Scribe
By now, I've seen this piece of advice quite a few times: Give your characters subtle trait-defining names, i.e give them names with a meaning. The name is supposed to reflect the character's main personality trait, the opposite of it, or reveal anything else imporant about them.
This approach makes sense for some of my characters who are a reincarnated version of themselves or someone else, especially since some people who named them are aware of their reincarnation or past life. So there are instances in which such a naming method might make sense. Also, in some cultures of my world, people tend to choose their name themselves when they are of certain age. Since it's fantasy I'm writing and reading about, this seemed like a cool concept to me.
Only recently did I talk to a friend about this way of naming from a logical standpoint, after I realized it's hard for me to think of a meaningful name for every relatively important character. Leaving out the example from my story, it normally doesn't make a lot of sense to give trait-defining names to characters, because who can tell at the birth of their child who they turn out to be when growing up? There's also the issue of finding a balance between the name being too on-the-nose and too cryptic. Most readers probably won't even notice or know the name's meaning if not explicitly pointed out (I assume?).
The more I think about it, the more I'm thinking about refraining from this naming method at least for the most characters in my story. There are other ways to make a name stand out, e.g. by regional distinctions or certain sound combinations.

What is your standpoint on this? And what is your way of naming characters?
 
I’ve never heard of it as writing ‘advice’ but it does make sense, although I’m not sure that it needs to be fastidiously followed as a rule every single time you name a character.

When I think about it, many fantasy authors have done this, and I think in fantasy particularly you are often dealing with the metaphorical and may choose to reference folklore or other known narratives or even real world cultures and languages, and so again, it makes sense to use those things as reference points when naming characters.

And thinking further on it, I do in fact do this, though not for every character. Sometimes a name is just a name.
 

Devor

Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Moderator
The two MCs in my story are both sprites, and because of politics and treaties, they're required to have two names, like the humans, for paperwork reasons, when they'd normally only have one. So they have come up with their own surnames.

The title of the book, Smughitter, is an example of one.
 

Karlin

Troubadour
In Hebrew, nearly all names have meaning, so this doesn't strike me as odd as all. It's curious that Hebrew names are often used by English speakers, in English translation, and they aren't aware that their name has any meaning. Examples: Joseph, David, Michael, James, Mary, Matthew, Barak...
 

Vafnir

Scribe
In Hebrew, nearly all names have meaning, so this doesn't strike me as odd as all. It's curious that Hebrew names are often used by English speakers, in English translation, and they aren't aware that their name has any meaning. Examples: Joseph, David, Michael, James, Mary, Matthew, Barak...
Yeah, I'm aware of that and want to even use Hebrew names in one region of my world. In real life, this happens because, as you say, people mostly don't know the meanings of those names. Correct me if I'm wrong, but not many people name their newborn child by the personality trait they would (want to) associate them with, "knowing" their child will be this or that way. If it fits, it's more of a coincidence than anything else. This is what I meant in my original post. Names which mean e.g. "The chosen one" or "The ruler of XYZ" make at least some sense in a fantasy setting, in context of a prophecy or royal lineage.
 
All names have a meaning to them… difference is in fantasy, what the OP is asking is should the name be intrinsically linked to their character.

There are quite a few examples of people with birth names that relate to their profession or hobby though. Coincidence or not? That is the question.

You also have many real life figures that were given names that based on their profession or what they became known for. Vlad the impaler is one example.
 

Karlin

Troubadour
Yeah, I'm aware of that and want to even use Hebrew names in one region of my world. In real life, this happens because, as you say, people mostly don't know the meanings of those names. Correct me if I'm wrong, but not many people name their newborn child by the personality trait they would (want to) associate them with, "knowing" their child will be this or that way. If it fits, it's more of a coincidence than anything else. This is what I meant in my original post. Names which mean e.g. "The chosen one" or "The ruler of XYZ" make at least some sense in a fantasy setting, in context of a prophecy or royal lineage.
This can be amusing. I have a grandson named "Shalev", which means "Calm". He is anything but...
 

Vafnir

Scribe
Yes
All names have a meaning to them… difference is in fantasy, what the OP is asking is should the name be intrinsically linked to their character.

There are quite a few examples of people with birth names that relate to their profession or hobby though. Coincidence or not? That is the question.

You also have many real life figures that were given names that based on their profession or what they became known for. Vlad the impaler is one example.
Yes, that is exactly what I mean. Since every single name has a meaning, it doesn't really make sense to compare fantasy characters' names and their meanings to the meanings of real life names.
You're right, Vlad the impaler or just "Smith, Miller" are good examples of these, but these are names given later in lives of people who were named that way. Thus, "Smith" could basically mean there once was a blacksmith in the family of the person in question a long time ago. And Vlad the impaler was not born with that given name. These things work really well with last names and given names, but not with first names given at birth.
 

pmmg

Myth Weaver
By now, I've seen this piece of advice quite a few times: Give your characters subtle trait-defining names, i.e give them names with a meaning. The name is supposed to reflect the character's main personality trait, the opposite of it, or reveal anything else imporant about them.

I've never heard this as writing advice, and I would say its not very good advice. There is no requirement to makes names say something as a way to cement the personality of the character. There may be times you want to do this, but there is no rule for this. For myself, I find it very unlikely one could be named something at birth as if we could know what they would be like as an adult. It could happen, and names could change along the way, but unlikely.

I try to give characters names that sound cultural, and seem likely in the culture and world they are in. To give characters names that reflect them as a character, johnny quicksword as the fastest blade in the west (for instance), seems too on the nose for me, and I would not expect a serious tale to follow.

I think whoever said that names have meaning and people don't know, is incorrect. I think most people know their name has some meaning in its roots. That is not the same as them living up to the meaning. (Though, there may be some psychological aspect in play, which might cause one to try and live up to it, but I suspect its a weak motivator).
 

Mad Swede

Auror
I would describe that piece of advice as oversimplified to the point of being misleading. To me, names should reflect the setting you have created. By that I mean the culture and society in which the story takes place. This gives all sort of possibilities for character and plot development.

Consider the advice you were given. If the character's name reflects a trait they have, when and how did they acquire that name? If they were given the name as a baby or as a child, was the name given in the hope they would have that trait or in response ot some prophecy about them? If so, what happens if the character doesn't want to be associated with that trait or don't want to fulfill the prophecy? Or, if they acquired the name as an adult, how were they known before that? What happens if they meet someone who only knows them by their old name? Can they take their old name back?

What about surnames? If these exist, are they patronymic or matronymic? If so, does this reflect how inheritance laws work? Does that sort of naming convention say anything else about the society in which the character grows up? Do surname conventions differ between towns and rural society and if so why? Do nobles have different sorts of surnames?
 
are they patronymic or matronymic? If so, does this reflect how inheritance laws work?
quite specifically Scandinavian, and a handful of other countries. I have a patronymic surname, and so was my maiden name actually, but they’re not true patronyms.
 

Mad Swede

Auror
quite specifically Scandinavian, and a handful of other countries. I have a patronymic surname, and so was my maiden name actually, but they’re not true patronyms.
That's true in real life, but my point was that when you create your story and its setting you have an opportunity to add depth by thinking about how and why characters get their names.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
There's real life and then there's story. In the one, we're dealing with human behavior, which ranges somewhere between cultural determinism and individual whim. In story, though, we're trying to communicate with our reader.

The advice (which I've never heard either), sounds like it's aimed more at story. It suggests we authors want to hint at character traits as a way of keeping things clear for the reader. It's along the same lines as recommending not to have too many characters with names that sound the same or even that start with the same letter. Such advice doesn't apply in the real world, but it makes a certain sense in storytelling terms.

My own advice, since you didn't ask, is to let your story logic and story world drive your choice of character names. You mentioned reincarnation and that some people would be aware of past lives, and so choose a name based on that. This makes good story sense. Go for it. In other of your cultures, other conditions apply, so follow those conditions. And don't worry about those who give you advice. You can make up your own name for them. <grin>
 
Imagine being called Johnny Orcslayer and then being captured and interrogated by orcs... so embarrassing.

I think very carefully about names - especially for the more important characters - but I'd never name them for a trait. That strikes me as a tad hamfisted. A couple of examples are my naughty lawyer character in a psychological crime thriller where nothing is as it seems (especially where he's involved). His name is Morgen Tanjenz - the Morgen part because of its double meaning in German.

In my current WIP - a very literary/satirical work set in a library - the MC's surname is Blair because I'm a massive admirer of Orwell. Other characters are Piers Gaveston, Cynthia Edwards and Agent Warwick - for those familiar with the events leading up to the demise of Edward II.

So the names are meaningful for me, and a subset of readers, but nothing turns on those names for the sake of the story.
 

A. E. Lowan

Forum Mom
Leadership
As far as lazy goes, you're in with the champ, but even I collect names. Lists and lists of them for every project, some with meanings, some not. What it really depends on for me, who was given a name with a meaning, is how well the sound and the flow and history of the name fits the character. Writing urban fantasy, we draw on names from all around the world and from beyond, looking to balance everything.

I may have over 500 idiots rattling around in my head, but most of their names do not repeat and are all good fits. It only gets confusing when I need to yell at a cat.
 

Not_Alice

Dreamer
Never heard of that advice, and it doesn't strike me as particularly wise either. Naming a character for their trait is a bit in your face, unless it's something like a title they adopted or got bestowed with somewhere along their journey. Like the above-mentioned Johnny Orcslayer. He slayed a few orcs, thus acquired the name. He probably was born John Smith. Go for names that fit your world/culture/whatever.
 
Never heard of that advice, and it doesn't strike me as particularly wise either. Naming a character for their trait is a bit in your face, unless it's something like a title they adopted or got bestowed with somewhere along their journey. Like the above-mentioned Johnny Orcslayer. He slayed a few orcs, thus acquired the name. He probably was born John Smith. Go for names that fit your world/culture/whatever.
No. His parents were Herb and Judy Orcslayer.
 

~Theletos~

Dreamer
I think it's nice to keep in mind, particularly if your story incorporates real life folk lore or mythology, as certain names could give readers the wrong idea, unless you make it plainly apparent that there is no connection.
 
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