Should a character’s name mean something?

The other day I had to introduce a couple of new characters in my novel and, as usual, this meant I had to pause and figure out what their names should be.  Why is this so hard?

This rule covers some of the basics–don’t confuse your readers with names that are too similar to each other; don’t give a character an ethnic name unless the ethnicity matters…  But there’s a deeper level at which a character’s name may feed into his characterization.  Or not.

Many names have connotations, and a writer needs to be sensitive to them.  “Brittany” says something to readers about a character, and “Edith” says something different. That doesn’t mean you can’t have an Edith who is trailer trash.  But if that’s what you’re up to, you’d better take a little time and explain what you’re doing.

So, the basic question is whether you want the character’s name to carry some of the weight of the characterization.  The more important the character, the less you want to rely on this, I think.  Even Dickens pulled back from his wonderfully evocative names–Havisham, Magwitch, Gradgrind–when it came to his most important or serious characters–Copperfield, Brownlow, Summerson.

Anyway, after ten minutes of pondering the state of my fictional universe, I welcomed Mrs. Fitz and her son Biff into it.  Will they survive my rewrites and second thoughts?  Only time will tell.

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3 thoughts on “Should a character’s name mean something?

  1. Biff? Really? So I googled ‘biff’ and came up with several ‘Biff’s’. Biff Tannen character in Back to the Future movies. Biff Loman character in Death of a Salesman. And definition of some one not too bright. Also, web site ‘thebookofbiff.com’. Any of those Biffs fit your chapter?

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  2. Pynchon is another novelist known for weird character names. I never found them particularly interesting and they certainly didn’t help his latest novel. Patrick O’Brian on the other hand has great character names: Preserved Killick, Awkward Davies and the Frenchman, M. Dutourd. Biff? Seriously?

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