Character Names: Associations

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey names his main antagonist Nurse Ratched. With its overtones of “wretched” and “ratchet,” the name has only negative connotations. The homonym “ratchet” is especially powerful when you realize that a ratchet, through ever-increasing tension or locking-in, allows motion in only one direction. This name gives me bad shivers!

TheHamletAnother great character name is Flem Snopes, the antagonist of Faulkner’s Hamlet trilogy (The Hamlet; The Town; The Mansion). The first name is a homonym for “phlegm,” and to that I say Ugh and Yuk! The second makes me think of a lot of “sn” words, most of them negative, as in snot, snob, snoot, snout, snipe, snit, snide, and snicker.

Katniss Everdeen is a name I have mixed feelings about. I like the last name because it brings to mind the word “evergreen,” with its connotations not only of vigor and freshness (also of “green-ness” in the sense of “untried”), but also long-lastingness. And the “deen” part of the name suggests “dean,” which means “head,” or “leader.”

But then comes Katniss, which I partly like and partly dislike. I like the “Kat” part because the K is a strong sound. But I dislike the name tapering off into an “iss” ending, which is not strong. The name seems to end in weakness or hissing. Or both.

I consider the name Harry Potter absolutely perfect for J.K. Rowling’s intentions. In Britain Harry is an endearing name in its own right, but it’s also used as a familiar name for various King Henry heroes in Shakespeare’s plays. The name means “soldier” in Old English and “army ruler” in Scandinavian, both old meanings being good for Rowling’s purposes.

31cSFNuQF2L._BO1,204,203,200_The last name Potter is a magnificent choice, alluding perhaps to a potter’s field where the unclaimed are buried, touching on the commonality of all humans to one another. And just as strong is the association with pottery. Without the invention of pottery and the making of pots by potters, early peoples would not have been able to store water or seeds or grains or other foods. Pots sealed and protected a tribe’s food for the winter: food without which they could not survive. So the potter was a very, very important contributor to a tribe’s survival, growth, and prosperity.

Finally, there’s the TA-dum TA-dum sound of Harry Potter’s name. HAR-ry POT-ter. In poetry, a TA-dum foot is a trochee. The most common stress in the English language is iambic: ta-DUM ta-DUM. Shakespeare’s plays are written in iambic pentameter, for example. The trochee is less common, though it’s used a lot in children’s rhymes, and William Blake used it (TYger TYger BURning BRIGHT). I’ve always thought the trochee, in small amounts, a very strong and memorable beat — which is another reason why I love the name Harry Potter. Many English names are trochee names, but not all of them are two-trochee names. Jack RY-an is a one-trochee name and lacks the double-punch of HAR-ry POT-ter.

daniel-craig-james-bondBut trochee names just won’t do for some authors. I find it deliciously humorous that so many macho heroes of Anglo-Saxon origin have both a one-syllable first name and a one-syllable last name. To a macho hero, anything more than one syllable is just froufrou. Bond. James Bond. This name really connotes: I. Mean. Business.

Then there’s Clive Cussler’s action hero, Dirk Pitt. A dirk is a dagger, so we get connotations of steel and deadliness, as well as phallic connotations. A pit is bottomless and deadly. Both the word “dirk” and the word “pitt” end in a plosive (a consonant in which the air flow is interrupted, as in p, t, k). Words that end in plosives sound abrupt. Final. All readings of the name Dirk Pitt lead to one conclusion: Do Not Mess With!

There’s a lot to naming a character in fiction, and for any writer it’s worth the time spent thinking about the sound of names, the beat of names, and the associations attached to names.

2 thoughts on “Character Names: Associations

  1. I enjoyed this deeper look at the import of character names. Tolkein used a lot of trochees, notably with Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, as well as Gandalf and Sauron. Nobody took more delight in creating character names than Robert Coover in THE UNIVERSAL BASEBALL ASSOCIATION, and he wrote a section about how invented names (even of baseball players) should have a sound that reflects not only their playing styles but also something about their character.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember that when I read The Universal Baseball Association I loved the character names and thought that Coover must have put a lot of thought into choosing them — and probably had a lot of fun doing it. Of the novels I’ve written and the characters I’ve chosen names for, it’s She’s on First that gave me the most fun. Choosing names for baseball characters feels one grade up from choosing names in general.

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