Was Juliet right?

We all know the quote:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about names. I choose character names with everything from obsessive care to spur-of-the-moment inspiration. But no matter how the name comes to me, the right one always has this feel. This spark. This aha! perfect!

But…how much of a character is in their name? How much does a name define a character? If Edward had been named Jack or Collin or Evan, would he be the sizzling Cullen boy we know today?

Cutting to the point, I had to change one of my character’s names last week. Well, not just any one of my characters: my lovely favorite hero, the green-eyed quarterback of the query, Esmund Morrow. This was a big change. But it says a lot about names.

Names have feels. Jack is a hardcore name with punch. One syllable: Jack. Elizabeth is an upper-class sounding name that makes me think of princesses and England. Esmund is an old-fashioned name that just so happens to fit my character perfectly. To quote people who have read the book, it’s “hot, manly, and mysterious” just like he is.

Names have history. So this is self-explanatory. If you wanted to name your Byronic hero Heathcliff, that would be a no-no. Unless it’s satire or something, but that’s a whole other story. Same with naming your vampire Edward Cullen. It’s been done before, so just — don’t.

The thing is, most every name has history. Emilia and I were moaning about this last week over email: most every name has been used before and sometimes their histories and connotations go so far as to redefine them. Take Edward for example.

Why do I keep bringing up Edward Cullen? Just say Esmund and Edward and Esmund and Edward about twenty times fast, and I think you’ll see. I’ve known all along that Esmund sounds similar to Edward. It didn’t matter much to me because Esmund existed (to me) long before I read Twilight, but we live in a post-Twilight world. Even though I was sad when my agent very gently and very sadly brought this up, I do understand. We both mourned for a while — then realized that this is best.

So he is renamed. And last week, as I read through the new manuscript, all weird-feeling because Esmund was *gone*, I wondered if he really was gone. Has renaming him completely changed his character? Does Esmund’s character smell just as sweet (or hot, manly, and mysterious)?

I’ve come to my own conclusions, but first I thought I’d ask you guys. Do we put to much weight on names? Would your characters “retain that dear perfection” with different names? Or do names mean everything?

My conclusion: names do mean a lot. I mean, I could not have renamed Esmund Bill. No way. But Esmund isn’t defined by his name. There’s more to him than that two-syllable conglomeration of letters that unfortunately sounds too much like another. His hotness and manliness and mysteriousness stem from something deeper. And luckily, Ian captures them just fine, too. Maybe better.


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7 responses to “Was Juliet right?

  1. Names are everything to me. When names are almost opposite of the character to defining his traits, names matter. I’m still not set on a name of a side character yet – it just doesn’t’ ring right when I read it. Thank goodness for the find and replace feature in modern technology!

  2. Rebecca

    Some names are extremely important to me. Others less so. I realized I needed to change the name of one of my supporting characters after I’d written my first draft, despite the fact that it made me very sad to do it. In the end, the new name suited her better anyways. However, if I was told I had to change the name of one of my main characters…I would be absolutely crushed! I’m sorry you had to lose the name you loved so much, but I’m glad you found a new one that makes you happy too.

  3. jess

    This makes me want to cry. I can’t imagine! 😦 Rhys could never be anybody but Rhys!

  4. Love love LOVE this post, and not just ’cause I’m mentioned (; Character names are a fascinating subject. They carry SO much weight, and it’s funny how some characters could go by a few names, but with other characters, there’s only one name.

    The MC of my next book is going to be called Harper. She didn’t fit in that name for 6 months – even though I wanted her to – and then suddenly, a couple nights ago, she did. So mysterious!

  5. writerkirsty

    Yep, names are mysterious. Why do some fit better than others? Who knows. And I wonder what it is inside of us that just clicks with a certain character name…?

    I’m clicking with Ian big-time — although I will admit I still slip up and call him Esmund sometimes… it’ll take a while for me to be completely used to it.

  6. Interesting post!

    My thoughts on names hover somewhere between the two extremes. I don’t think there is “the” name for any of my character — but there are names that are ill-suited, and names that aren’t. There are names I love and tried to force on my characters; just reading the prose with those names was awkward until I changed them.

    In all, however, I agree. My characters aren’t defined by their names. If it feels like they are, it’s probably born of familiarity (if I happen to change them).

    • writerkirsty

      You put it perfectly! Those feelings that “this character HAS to be named X” definitely stem from familiarity/constant use.

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