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I'm naming characters for my fantasy story, and so far many of them have nmes that mean something. Characters from different regions have names from different cultures, several names represent their roll in the story or draw parallels from mythology or literature, etc.

My question is, can it become inappropriate after a while? I know there's moderation in everything, but I just want to know when. Many of the names I chose don't sound forced, (Nikolas and Katherine are two of my leads), and characters from the same region have similar enough names (Hiraku, Ayumu and Daiche all live in the same country) to not sound clunky. But is there a point where my reader will become irritated?

I am familiar with a work that specifically has a "Color Naming Rule" which means literally every character has a meaningful name, and the writers pull it off very well, partially because they have an in-universe excuse, which I don't have.

This is just something that's been bugging me, can I get some help?

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    For the record, I've been taught that, in literary fiction, one should avoid meaningful names since they come off as gimmicky. – Ken Mohnkern Feb 22 '16 at 19:10
  • What exactly is a meaningful name? – sirdank Feb 22 '16 at 19:50
  • It's a name with some metaphor or relevant meaning behind it. A well known example is Draco Malfoy. "Draco" means dragon, and "Mal" pretty much means "Bad", meaning that Draco Malfoy's name means "Bad Dragon," which is a reflection of the fact that he's a dirtbag in-story. – J. A. Feb 23 '16 at 3:10
  • @J.A. You don't need to say "in-story", it's not like Draco Malfoy has an out-of-story existence. – DepressedDaniel Feb 13 '17 at 3:46
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I'm going to disagree with the other answers and say I don't think meaningful names are necessarily gimmicky. It's all about how you use them and they can add a lot to your story.

For instance, a parent could give their child a name like "Genius" and the kid could be inspired by that name to learn a lot and become really smart. Hence, they become a genius, true to their name. But the parents didn't foresee the kid being a genius, rather the character was inspired to become a genius because of their name.

A name like Blue (if the child has blue eyes as a newborn) or Red (if she has red hair) or Ringlet (if the baby was born with a head of curls) - these are tedious names but bear with me for example's sake - could easily and realistically be incorporated into your novel. I wouldn't name every character after one of their physical characteristics, but it's certainly not unrealistic to do so in this fashion.

Now, if you bad guy has some really evil name then that would be considered gimmicky in my book. Did his parents foresee him becoming evil? Did they want him to? Assuming it was his birth name and not a nickname, that is.

Which brings me to my next point: nicknames. While parents might not be able to foresee how their kids will turn out when they're born, people CAN develop nicknames later in life. If someone loves toads, maybe his friends call him Toad. Or if someone has curly hair they could be called Corkscrew. Nicknames could also be related to personality traits (Temper, Fury, etc.). Nicknames are a great way to give your reader a meaningful name without sounding gimmicky.

In some civilizations you get several names throughout your lifetime. Oftentimes children aren't even born into a name; rather, they are given a name that reflects something about their personality as they get a bit older. And for each "chapter" or "turning point" in the person's life, they get a new name. I read a book like this awhile back that had to do with Native Americans but I can't remember it's name. The MC's baby brother was never given a name (the ancestor in the tribe said a name just never came to her) and as it turned out, the book was foreshadowing the baby's death.

As you can see, there are many non-gimmicky ways to incorporate meaningful names into novels. And at the end of the day, I don't think it could negatively impact your book even if your names are somewhat gimmicky. For me personally, I love when characters have meaningful names. I dislike boring or useless names that serve almost no purpose in a piece of writing. Also, meaningful names are more likely to stick with the reader.

  • I love your notes on nicknames. I will look into that while choosing my character names. My villain's name of Echidna might be a good example of a nickname. – J. A. Feb 24 '16 at 15:32
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As Ken Mohnkern mentioned, meaningful names are gimmicky. Speaking from personal experience, I've yet to meet anybody whose parent predicted at birth what their child would become as an adult, save those who inherited family businesses. Meaningful names really only make sense culturally, e.g. when names are given as a coming of age ritual, and are determined in part by the character traits of the person in question. If these are birth names, and the parents aren't premonitory, or there isn't some other story-driven reason why their names should be meaningful, then you run the risk of sounding amateur.

That doesn't mean that you can't rely on tonality to infer meaning...

  • 'Kadraak' has a hard sound to it, and might fit a rough-and-tumble type
  • 'Mesilya' has a feminine ring
  • 'Eglerus' could be scholarly
  • 'Shebayul' is a bit alien, perhaps a mysterious creature or race
  • As a side note: 'Catherine' was my barista this morning (dead serious, not to poke fun)

Just be careful, if you opt to create your own names, to make sure that they aren't so alien that they alienate your reader. You and your reader will be spending a lot of time with your characters, their names will be sung or whispered (or mocked) accordingly, by fans and detractors alike. Invest the time to come up with names fitting to their respective legend.

  • You have two really strong points in you comment: the coming of age ritual, where names are decided based on personality traits, and how tonality can impact the reader's perspective of the character. I didn't even think of that second one, but it is definitely a solid strategy for naming characters subtly. – Abs Feb 24 '16 at 14:01
  • I agree. Thanks for your comment. I might want to look over my names one more time. Some of my names actually could have been given at birth (Nikolas' name meaning Victory, he was born to a warmonger), but Katherine is my personal favorite because it has two, opposite meanings. One meaning, "Tortured", being reflective of her past, and the other, "Purity," being reflective of her present. Other names, though, are definitely a bit more gimmicky than that. – J. A. Feb 24 '16 at 15:31
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There's no hard and fast rule --the more that characters have clearly meaningful names, the more the story will feel allegorical rather than realistic. In other words, if all the characters have meaningful names, readers will start looking for a secret meaning underlying the plot.

I think you're on safest ground if either everyone has a meaningful name, or only one or two people do. One or two can be believable, and if it's everybody (or nearly everyone, as in Harry Potter), you get used to it. If it's a handful of characters (without an in-universe explanation), it calls attention to itself, and continues to do so throughout the book.

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I agree with @kmunky that blatantly meaningful names almost always sound gimmicky and trite. If the rich man is named "Rich Cashman" and the violent drug dealer is named "Coke McBullitt" and so on, it just sounds lame. Periodically on this forum people ask, "What would be a good name for a character who ...", and my response is always "Fred Stover" or "Jack Williamson" or some such perfectly ordinary sounding name.

If your story is an allegory, that's a special case. Then, sure, name the characters "Piety" and "Prudence" and "Hopeful". It can also work in a comedy, where the character's blatant name is part of the joke. Like "Cruella Deville" for the villianess in 101 Dalmations.

I have mixed feelings about subtly meaningful names. Like someone mentioned "Draco Malfoy" in the Harry Potter books. If the reader doesn't get it, than it makes no difference. If he does, he may feel like he's gotten an "in joke". But if it's a serious book, characters' names should be jokes, should they?

That said, I think giving a character a name that has a tone or connotations consistent with his or her personality is good and reasonable.

I recall musing once that I'd be quite surprised to hear, "The winner of this year's Nobel price for physics is ... Bambi." Or that the world champion boxer is named Dexter. Etc. I don't know if anyone's ever done a study on whether a person's name is related to his personality. I don't think it would be implausible: what your parents named you is likely related to how they raised you and your environment in general, and maybe a certain type of name inclines people to act a certain way. But whether it's true or not, I think we expect certain kinds of people to have certain kinds of names. Giving a tough character a tough name and a sweet feminine character a sweet feminine name helps create the desired perception in the reader's mind. Again, as long as it's not too blatant.

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Names with meanings that match the character’s story are really a kind of easter egg. Most readers won’t know the meanings, so you are putting in effort for just a few readers. You may also be detracting from the enjoyment of your work by all readers because the names become forced and complicated and may be hard for the reader to remember.

Some other approaches to naming that you might consider:

  • create names that are easy for the reader to remember

  • create names that are beautiful

  • create names that are unique

  • use names that are selected at random from a list of names, such as those found in census data.

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There are no definitive answers, depends on skill and richness of the story as Tolkien proved. IMO for a single novel, it shouldn't be more than a dozen or so, with distinct sounding names.

I agree both with tonal meaning and gimmicks, both work as illustrated by the many authors who use either or both.

As to your names If Hiraku & Ayumu are minor characters, after a while i may only remmenber the "U" ending and confuse the two.

Btw, for me Nikolas and Katherine are moutfulls ( Ni-Ko-Las (or Laus), & Ka-Te-Rin (or Rina)) that would tend to be slightly irritating as pages go. It could be worth it to go with short versions or nicknames like Kat & Nick, Kol & Ther, Las & Rin...

Also their names reminds one of Tsars, Emperors....may be too grand and majestic for the "everyday hero" , if that's what they are...

Else you could go descriptive with their atributes. For Nickolas you could use Victor, Vicci, Warren (as in "war end"), for Katherine maybe something like Flame, Torch, Tampered, Crystal, Chrysalis....

  • Thanks for that. Nikolas and Katherine are not everyday heroes, but rather, for lack of a better word, superheroes. Hiraku and Ayumu are two other major characters who are among the regular population, so confusion there won't be too bad. – J. A. Mar 2 '16 at 14:59
  • (Tried to put a paragraph break in my last comment) Thanks for the help. – J. A. Mar 2 '16 at 15:00

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