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Is naming a character to go with a theme or setting of a novel off putting for the reader? Does this pull them out of the story?

For example: A character named digit in a cyberpunk future or one named Alaster on a novel about Demons and the Devil?

or a whole slew of characters named after animals that live above or below ground in a dystopian future where people underground are at war with people above?

Are naming conventions like this too on the nose and make you as a reader roll your eyes? Or do they work for you and make the world/story more believable?

thoughts?

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It's all about immersion. You need to make things realistic from an internal logic point of view. I agree with both mwo and Sara Costa, but the point they both miss is immersion.

Let me give you an example. Your story is set in Feudal Japan, your main character is Japanese. Her name is Jane Doe. Do you see something wrong with this?

The name must make sense in the context of what the parents of the character would want to name their child. It's a wish of sorts for their child. Sometimes it's about letting them stand out; "I'll call you Mahlahkhai! So no one can read your name and confuse you with someone else." Sometimes they want the child to carry on the family legacy; "John Baptiste VIII, it's a family name." Sometimes it's cultural; a French boy named Jacques, and his sister Fleur. Sometimes it's time related; Dale being a girl's or boy's name dependant entirely on when the name is given (as an example, because I have a male cousin named Dion, and a female cousin, his sister, named Dale).

Figure out what the common thread would be of the time, and either consciously go with it, or consciously go against it. Even if the reasons for either are not readily apparent.

As another example, from my own story I'm working on. Fraternal twins, brother and sister, are named Ina Miyo (Ina being the family name, given their mother is Japanese), and James Tessier (Tessier being the family name, given their father is French/Arabic). There's so much being revealed about them via their name, for so many reasons. But these aren't reasons that are readily apparent, they are delved into one step at a time.

So what do the fictional parents want this child's name to say about them? That they fit in with their peers? That they were destined to stand out? And to build on Sara Costa's point, their handle name (or nickname) is also very important. That is a conscious choice by someone to see this person in this light.

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It very much depends on the reader. I roll my eyes every time I see or hear the name Voldemort, but evidently millions of others don't agree with me. I think that kind of naming is something people tire of, but not during the course of a single book, but over the course of their lives. If you're catching people when they are young, or when they are only just moving into your genre then you would meet less resistance.

The examples you give (Digit, Alaster) are pretty blunt, and I think would be completely safe only for naive audiences, like children/teens, or where you're easing a cyberpunk/horror subplot into your successful line of historical romance novels. More genre-savvy readers would expect you to either hide your references a little more subtly, or be very self-aware about it.

Likewise, naming your entire cast in a rigid scheme might work for a reader whose guard is down for whatever reason, but a more cynical reader could doubt such a system could spontaneously arise in a real world where people tend to enjoy more independent thought. For those readers you would at least have to confront your naming scheme with some convincing social study/worldbuilding.

  • I'm with you on Voldemort, though my distaste for Harry Potter comes from other, deeper flaws. But surely the problem here is that Rowling does not name any other character this way. Making a character with a name that is essentially "Death Wish" works fine if you follow comic book naming for the rest of the characters as well. But Rowling's method is to do the broadest pastiche possible, and by and large she succeeds at the stylistic level, which is somewhat remarkable given the range of her borrowings. So one bad apple does not spoil the whole barrel in this case. – user16226 Mar 19 '17 at 14:59
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While I agree with @mwo's answer, I'd like to add that an obviously thematic name may work better if it's a nickname rather than one's true name. If Digit is better known to her family as Lisa, for example, and throughout the book there are a few people who call her Lisa (even if only for a few moments of the novel) while everyone else prefers her Digit moniker, then it will be more acceptable even for genre-savvy readers. After all, one thing is to be nicknamed in reference to your skills and interests, another very different is to have one's parents to miraculously choose the name that will fit a baby's future interests. Though it would be funny if one's parents chose 'Digit' only for the child to grow up with an aversion to technology.

Another good idea is to keep such thematic names subdued. I often like to choose names based on their meaning, but I rarely choose obvious names. For example, if you would like a character's name to be related to love, Amy would be a more subdued choice than Aimée or Amanda (I'm Portuguese, so Amanda is always much too obvious for me).

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Characters with memorable names almost always endure in the imaginations of people long after the end of the novel. Voldemort is a great name. It rolls off the tongue, so easily and is still clever as it has death in it! However, if the writing didn't support the character name, it would appear awkward and uninterestng... Personally, I think digit is a good name. Its "cute", in the way that it conjures up a character who is sassy, clever..and it rolls off the tongue. I think Charles Dickins had amazing memorable names.

  • Hi! Welcome to Writers.SE! So, it sounds to me like you're saying thematic names work, if they're memorable, if they give a strong impression, basically if they work well in all the other regards. Is that about right? – Standback Mar 22 '17 at 12:29

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