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The post in which I waffle on character names

One of the many things I have a love/hate relationship with as a writer is the idea of using a character's name to communicate symbolism.

When it's done poorly or obviously, you end up with somebody like Faith in "Young Goodman Brown."  (Gee, Nate, I guess I DO kinda see what you're saying now, thanks for spelling it out for me.) When it's a little more subtle, it becomes a fun, almost-clever kind of thing you can point out later over coffee.  (Say, isn't it cool how Morpheus from The Matrix talks about "waking up" Neo, but he's named after the god of dreams?)  And yeah, that's probably the only time anybody will say that The Matrix is a better and more meaningful contribution to literature than "Young Goodman Brown," but I'll own it.  Fuck that story.  The Scarlet Letter it ain't.

I normally don't bother with the name game.  Most of the time I simply choose something that sounds as neutral and believable as possible, since I don't want to distract my readers from more important matters.  Still, I can't shake off the appeal of name meanings.  Like, Julia means "youthful," and Julia as a protagonist in I Need a Job is meant to be a cipher for all young people who are transitioning to independence.  Not bad, right?

And sometimes it works totally by accident.  I named the main character "James" in Born Loser because I was just trying to think of a common name that nobody would blink at.  Something average to allow him to be an audience proxy who spends much of the first act reluctantly tagging along.  So how fortunate is it that his name means "one who follows?"

But what about "Mary" in Bitter People Without Souls?  There's religious and moral connotations that work nicely with her ethical dilemmas throughout the story, but is that too obvious?  I mean, I did stop short of naming her son "Jesus," so at least I've got that going for me.

My present waffling has to do with names for the cast of my abduction-themed horror novel.  There are quite a few abductees that the narrator of the story meets, and due to the circumstances, most of them have nicknames, all of which were assigned due to miscellaneous character quirks.  But there are two characters in particular whose names I haven't settled on.

The first is the narrator.  In this story more than any other, I really want the narrator to be an audience surrogate.  So much so that I haven't assigned a gender, race, profession, or much of anything else to that character.  All you know about them is that they're probably American, they're relatively young - probably in their twenties or thirties - and that they went to college for at least some amount of time.  Everything else is left unsaid because the character's background is irrelevant to the drama at hand.  This isn't a book about society or inner conflict; it's all external.  "Here's a horrible, messed-up situation, good luck dealing with it."

It's not so tough to work around the character's identity when it comes to interactions with the rest of the cast, as it turns out.  Very little dialogue requires you to specifically call out somebody's background.  There's one notable exception, though: people need names.  I know there's writers out there who've sidestepped that completely, like Joseph Conrad or Chuck Palahniuk, but even in those cases, people gravitate toward some kind of identifying phrase or characteristic.  You still need a way to refer to somebody, so the question is, how do I do that without assigning further personality?

I tooled around with the idea of a gender-neutral, kinda-boring name like "Chris."  But the way I think I'm going to actually go is with a nickname that the narrator gets due to their experiences with the other abductees.  Right now I'm leaning toward "Wonky," which they'll call the protagonist after they get a concussion and their eyes get messed up.  The advantage to this is that it keeps everything about the character within the present, so much so that their single identifying characteristic is a result of their abduction.  The disadvantage is that I'll have a horror story where dramatic, tense moments will be punctuated by people shouting, "Wonky!  Wonky, where are you?!"

So, um, I don't know yet.  That might backfire.

There's another character who's giving me reason to pause, but for far less dramatic reasons.  One of the characters Wonky meets is a teenage girl who basically serves as the catalyst for an escape plan.  I'm debating whether I want to call her Ameena, meaning "honest," or Amala, meaning "hope" or "purity."  It's a seemingly trivial detail since either name would have the right connotation for her character, but the subtlety of the difference makes it an agonizing choice.  Is the reason she becomes the catalyst for Wonky's plans due to her apparent honesty in contrast to some of the other abductees, or is it because she gives Wonky hope to try to overcome their present futility?  Which one makes more sense in context?

Lucky thing Word has a "find and replace" feature.  Man, I love that sucker.