What’s in a Name? Only Everything
Aaron Hamburger’s latest novel, Nirvana Is Here, publishes this month with Three Rooms Press
“Like everything Hamburger writes, NIRVANA IS HERE is compulsively readable, charming, and suffused with deep humanity. The title is truth in advertising, folks: this novel is nirvana indeed.” —Elisa Albert
By Aaron Hamburger •
One of the most vexing tasks fiction writers face is naming their characters.
Over the years, I’ve heard of writers searching for names in baby books, phone books (back when people had phone books), and even the Bible. Some writers try to avoid this problem altogether by leaving characters unnamed. I often see this in drafts by novice writers, who think they’ve invented a new prose style—until they walk into a fiction workshop with ten stories featuring unnamed protagonists.
Not only is leaving a main character unnamed unoriginal, as well as annoying and confusing to readers, but it’s also not very lifelike. After all, virtually every human being at birth gets a name.
The choosing of names for your characters has so much potential to enrich stories, both for writers while creating them and for readers while consuming them. The key is to choose with intention rather than by intuition.
As a fiction writer, I’ve used the following four strategies to add meaning and texture to my work:
1) Ye Olde Dickens Method: Name as Personality Marker
Think of Charles Dickens’s most famous characters, like the unctuous Uriah Heep, the villainous Mr. Murdstone (murder + stone, get it?), or the pedantic Thomas Gradgrind, and you get the picture. Here, names reflect personality traits, sometimes all too obviously. A good character might be “Ernest Goodman.” A bad one presumably would be “Miss Ville Inn.”
In the wrong hands, fairly cheesy. But when executed well, this strategy has yielded some of the most memorable characters in literature.
One example is the titular character of the novel Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell. Usually a master of understatement, Connell isn’t above having some Dickensian fun by naming his WASPy and privileged protagonist—based on his own mother—after a card game that’s a staple of middle class life.
Another example, from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, is Tea Cake, Janie Crawford’s boy toy husband, whose genuine affection is (initially anyway) pure indulgence for Janie after her previous troubled marriages.
More recently, who could mistake the sour personality of Olive, the ornery protagonist of Elizabeth Strout’s novel Olive Kitteridge?
2) How Do Your Characters Feel About Their Names?
I remember an instructor in my MFA program endorsing the Dickensian method of naming characters, declaring, “No one’s going to buy a nuclear physicist named Tiffany.”
Whatever your feelings about the resonances of the name Tiffany, here’s the rub: Tiffany couldn’t control what her parents named her. Isn’t it possible that someone named Olive at birth might turn out a total sweetheart, that dear sweet Tea Cake might become bitter and violent (as he does after being bitten by a rabid dog in Their Eyes Were Watching God)—or that a nuclear physicist might be named Tiffany?
Let’s return to Evan S. Connell and his protagonist Mrs. Bridge, whose friends have middle-class-white-lady names like Marge, Lois, and Grace. Here is the novel’s opening line:
“Her first name was India—she was never able to get used to it.”
Connell immediately establishes Mrs. Bridge’s fundamental lack of self-ease through her feelings about her unusual name.
Our relationship to our name(s) says a lot about us. (As someone who grew up with the last name of “Hamburger,” I know whereof I speak.) The names we’re given are constant reminders of the expectations and hopes of our parents. Names create a mythology of who we might have been in some Edenic dream, and who we’ve failed to become by being ourselves instead.
Of course, we can modify or change our names, which is also telling. Consider the character of Gogol in Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake, named after his father’s favorite author. As Gogol gets older, and his relationship with his father becomes more fraught, Gogol changes his name legally, to Nikhil. Later, as both he and his father age, Gogol sees his name—and his father—in a different, kinder light.
3) Embedding Information in Names
Names are embedded with all kinds of information, like the era in which a character was born. While growing up, I was surrounded by Jennifers and Amys and Jasons. My college students, however, are more likely to be Madisons, Taylors, and Zacharys.
Similarly in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, a multigenerational family story, the parents have the more old-fashioned sounding names of Alfred and Enid, while their children are named Gary, Denise, and Chip.
Names are also markers of class, ethnicity, even social status. Yet again, Evan S. Connell’s novel is instructive. In the following passage, Mrs. Bridge is upset that one of her daughters is running in a bad crowd. Why? Because of their names.
“For some reason, Ruth’s friends always had foreign names. Carolyn’s [Ruth’s sister] companions were named Bob or Janet or Trudy or Buzz, but there was a malignant sound to Al Luchek, and to the others—the Louie Minillos and the Nick Gajadas. They sounded like gangsters from the north end.”
I employed all three of the above strategies while writing my novel Nirvana Is Here, about a man in middle age looking back on his high school years. I used the Dickens method to name my protagonist’s slightly bombastic father Max. I liked its short, barking sound and comic tinge (as in the Marx Brothers). For the protagonist’s mother, an artist, I chose the lovely name Deanna, longer and more lyrical-sounding.
I used the second strategy, a character’s relationship to his name, with my protagonist Ari, who dislikes how ethnic his name sounds when he transfers from a Jewish school to a secular one. Also, the name “Ari” means “lion” in Hebrew, a contrast to the personality of my shy protagonist, which I exploit in a scene when Ari awkwardly explains his name’s meaning to a new friend.
Finally, I used the third strategy of embedded information in naming Ari’s eventual life partner, a hipster poetry professor who goes by M. Here I wanted to reflect a contemporary trend I’ve noticed in academic and writing circles: people of varying gender identities using single-letter first names that don’t correspond to “male” or “female.” I chose the letter M because it shares the same first letter as Mark, a boy who sexually assaulted Ari as a young man, thereby creating a horrible linkage.
But wait. That’s only three strategies. Where’s number four?
4) Psychological Resonance for the Author
Certain names, because of their private and personal resonances, can help a writer during the conceptual stages of a story to perceive their characters more clearly. Writing a novel is hard enough. If you can make the process easier by playing a Jedi mind trick on yourself—I say, go for it!
So with Nirvana Is Here, for Ari’s high school crush, I chose the name of Justin, which was always one of my favorite names. Perhaps for that reason, I’ve always liked people called Justin, including my college boyfriend (though he is not remotely like the character of Justin Jackson in my novel). Giving my character that name helped me place him mentally in the narrative as a “good guy,” and true friend to my protagonist.
Finally, I was working on a minor character that in early drafts I had a tough time liking much. At one point, I named him Mr. Wentworth after a beloved character from Jane Austen’s Persuasion. After that, I was able to portray him more favorably.
Armed with these strategies, you may find the task of naming your characters less onerous, and the idea of leaving a character unnamed downright mystifying.
AARON HAMBURGER is the author of the story collection The View from Stalin’s Head (Rome Prize, the American Academy of Arts and Letters), the novel Faith for Beginners (a Lambda Literary Award nominee), and the novel Nirvana Is Here. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Crazyhorse, Tin House, Subtropics, Poets & Writers, Boulevard, and O, the Oprah Magazine. He has taught writing at Columbia University, the George Washington University, The Writer’s Center, and the Stonecoast MFA Program.