By Sarah Brodhead
Creative writing is rife with symbols. Symbols such as the sun as truth and owls as wisdom permeate every type of writing from novels to video games.
An opportunity that you might be missing to bring this deeper symbolic work to your own writing is by applying it to the names that you give your characters.
A symbol, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “an act, sound, or object having cultural significance and the capacity to excite or objectify a response.” Names are filled with cultural significance both in the context of the world of the audience, and the world of the character. They can create a response in the reader by strengthening or challenging the theme, and they can create a response in the characters in the story.
What follows are a few ways in which what you name your character can add depth to your writing.
1) Use the Name’s Meaning
If you don’t make up new and never-before-seen names for your characters, they already come with a level of symbolic meaning. The name Tiffany, for example. The meaning of the name is “appearance or manifestation of god.” If a character has a name that means “manifestation of god” and happens to be an impoverished prostitute, layers of depth begin to form. This can create irony and perhaps even social commentary. The meaning of the name becomes a culturally imbued symbol with which you can play.
Another place where symbolic meaning can form is the meaning of the name to the person who gave it to the character in the context of the story. In the 2002 movie “The Count of Monte Cristo,” the title character Edmond Dantés escapes from the infamous Château d’If. When he washes ashore, he meets pirates who, after forcing him into a knife fight, name him Zatarra. He replies that the name “sounds fearsome,” but the captain informs him that the name means “driftwood.”
Since he literally drifted ashore the name meaning might stop there. But the man who he was forced to fight, and whose life he spared, Jacopo, continues to call him Zatarra throughout the rest of the movie, even when he learns his identity. The name not only becomes a reminder of the critical moment when it was given, but a symbol of the relationship between the two men.
2) Use the Cultural Subtext
Back to the name Tiffany. In the movie “Gentlemen Prefer Blonds,” Marilyn Monroe sings “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” in her expensive pink dress and shouts “Tiffany’s!” Even people who have never watched the movie are likely to have heard the song. This association of wealth and diamonds with the name Tiffany can also influence subconscious associations.
The name of a character can also begin to symbolize the character before we get to know them. Other people or fictional characters with the same name such as Tiffany Case, a Bond Girl in “Diamonds Are Forever,” Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett, from “Orange Is the New Black”, or Tiffany Trump might come to the reader’s mind when you introduce your character. Tiffany was only a popular girls name between 1980 and 1991. Most people named Tiffany are likely to be between 30 and 40 years old today, so the real people that your reader knows named Tiffany are likely to reflect that age range and inform their image of the character.
Another way to use the cultural context of a name is in the way that they are gendered. Naming a girl with a traditionally male name may show that she is a tomboy. Naming any character a non-binary name may symbolize a contentious relationship with gender.
In the Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue,” the name isn’t important except that it is culturally a feminine name. The other characters in the song know this and laugh and belittle the speaker whose father named him Sue. The name Sue is symbolically representative of a feminine person and this representation is something which the speaker actively tries to resist by growing tough and embracing
male stereotypes emphatically. What the name represents shapes the character from his very beginning.
3) Using Character Names Within the Context of the Work
In the novel “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck, the characters Candy, Curly, Crooks, and Carlson all appear with the same first letter. Most literary articles will recommend against using character names that sound alike or that start with the same letter because it makes it confusing for readers to distinguish between characters. Here the naming is intentional. The symbolic sameness and blending of these characters allows characters like Lenny, George, and Slim to stand out as not only typographically different, but different minded, widening the perceived juxtaposition between the characters.
Only one woman appears in the scene in the book, and instead of being named she is referred to only as “Curley’s wife.” Her lack of a name represents her dehumanized condition. She is the property of her husband, and all the other men around her treat her as such, talking negatively about her for her attempted interactions with them and for the way she looks and dresses. Further, since she is the only woman that appears within the story, she can also be seen as a symbol of how the men see and treat women in general.