October 20, 2013

Naming your characters

Dear M,

I often spend a long time naming my characters. At first it was done unconsciously, but then I began to do it intentionally too.

Let me start where it actually started. I have always been uncomfortable with names. I know my characters, but I have no idea what name would suit them best. So in my earliest short stories, the protagonist has always been He or She. Throughout the story. Or I - which makes it easy since I don't have to name myself.

I have been okay to naming my lead character's friends or siblings. But somehow no name I could think of would seem appropriate for the He or the She.

A long time ago, a maths teacher told me that when we need to think of any random number, nothing comes to mind. Ask someone to give you three numbers between zero and ten. They would give you one, then they would stammer and murmur before they come up with the next, probably the third number would be the same as the first. Or try to arrive at a completely random ten-digit phone number. You have ten unique digits, but the phone number you come up with would have so many repetitions! So many numbers and they just refuse to come to mind. Especially zero - it is the most evasive of all.

The same with names, I think. In India, it should be so easy to come up with a nice name or two. But naming your character isn't as simple as thinking of a number. A lot of information is conveyed by the character's name. The first name immediately (in most cases) tells you his religion. If the surname is given, it could tell you his caste. You could conclude a lot about his parents (Remember The Namesake?) if his name is an ancient one (after all they must have named him) - either they are an old-fashioned family or they are a traditional family with deep rooted beliefs. If it is a modern one, they probably have westernised mindset. They are probably impressed by the actors of Bollywood or Hollywood. From a young man with a funky name we expect nothing but funkiness. Of course he can be totally un-funky too, and perhaps that is the beauty of the story.

There is no truth in most of these inferences from names. In real life, a man with a name like Manohar might be the ugliest person you have seen, and a girl named Megha could be as fair as snow or dark as rain clouds. However, it gives an initial impression to the reader about the character.

The perfect name for a character is like zero - evasive, but all-encompassing, the beginning as well as the end - the name that says it all.


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  1. Brilliantly written. I have also struggled a lot in naming characters, whenever I write. A wonderful take on the subject.

  2. Brilliant write. Naming a character is always difficult, whether it is for a fiction or for a real life character whom you know. :)

    Nisha - Le Monde-A Poetic Travail

    1. True, naming a real life character is also difficult !!