Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What's in a name?

How important is a character's name? Obviously, we've all read books where the character's name is unforgettable: Frodo Baggins, Dagney Taggert, Nick Carraway, Mr. Darcy, Roland of Gilead.
But what if you picked up the sequel to a book you read a few months ago and some of the names were changed? Would you notice?
I read "Salem's Lot" about 6 months ago. I remember the characters pretty well. There was an author. He was brave, disciplined, used a typewriter, and liked to take walks. He fell in love with a girl he met in the town. There is nothing unusual about her character. I liked her. She was a reader--that's how she knew the author, and beautiful. There was a boy--he was intelligent and spoke like an adult. Then, of course there was a vampire and his servant.
So, here's the thing. I don't remember any of their names. Not one. The priest reappears in another of Stephen King's books, and I still don't remember his name--Father (something Irish, I think, McCulloch? Callahan?)
If the illustrious Mr. King were to write a sequel to "Salem's Lot" and assign all of the characters new names, I probably wouldn't notice, as long as the characters were the same.
So, here's my point... Do I really have one? I think my point is that the characterization is more important than the name you give your character-- in this example anyway.
A friend of mine is about to publish a sequel to her first book (Just so I don't give too much away about the plot of her next book, I'll keep her anonymous, but it is still probably pretty obvious)
Anyway, some of the characters need to go under cover and in order to protect their identities, they are given new names. So, for the rest of the story, they go by these new names.
Some of the people in our critique group think this is too confusing--now, who is this again? We even discussed how many times is appropriate for the author to remind the reader of which names were changed. Seriously, the more I think about it, the less important the actual names are. I really think as long as her characterization is on the mark, readers won't be too confused. We naturally read more carefully when we critique instead of just enjoying the story.
Another book I've been reading is Karen Hoover's "Armor of Light." Her main character is called different things by different people, and she isn't the only one. There are other characters who use secret names for each other, and without her overly explaining it, I haven't been confused once.
So, just to play devil's advocate, I'll go back to Karen's book to support the opposite view. Her main character, Ember was given her name to conceal her identity as she and her mother started a new life. She was named after the fire that killed her father. Her name is way important. If I picked up the sequel to this book and she wasn't called Ember or Shandae, I would totally notice. No matter how well her character was written (and she is such a great character!) Just like I would notice if Edward Cullen had a different name in Breaking Dawn. How do I remember every name of every character in Harry Potter? Would I still throw my book against the wall with a scream if it was Steve Jones that told Scarlett O'Hara that frankly he didn't give a damn?
What's the answer? Are some names just more memorable? Are some characters just written so well that their name doesn't matter? Does it depend on the book--like if it is more literary, their names may represent their character, their destiny, their allegiance, or their darkest secret?
Could all these answers be right?
Would Jane Bennett by any other name still seem as sweet?
Tell me what you think.
By the way, I think the vampire's name is Barlow.

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