A Rose by Any Other Name…

a special rose for a special day

From Marlis1 on flickr

(Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t have been so hard on How Shakespeare Changed Everything given today’s title.)

One of the interesting things about book blogging is discovering all the idiosyncratic things I do in my reading that I had never noticed before. Almost exactly a year ago, I had a discussion here about how much attention I and other readers pay to physical descriptions of characters. That discussion was based on another review I saw of a book I really enjoyed, Between Friends by Kristy Kiernan and how physical description – or lack thereof – influenced our feelings about the book as readers. Kristy also responded with an author’s perspective.

Lately I’ve been thinking about another of my odd reading habits, which relates to the names of characters. It seems that I primarily have two settings when it comes to names: I ignore them, or they bother me. Honestly, most of the time I have no idea what the names of any given character are when I finish the book, often this is even the case when I am in the middle of the book. Realizing that I tend not to pay attention to the name OR physical characteristics makes me wonder exactly how I do identify characters, but I suppose this explain why I have trouble with books that have a large number of generally indistinct minor characters, if I don’t understand their actions and motivations, I just can’t keep them straight.

For me the name is not a word with meaning in and of itself, but it acts as short hand for everything that makes the character who they are. Which I assume is the case for many people, except maybe most of you actually pay attention to the name itself as well?

Which brings me to my second weirdness with names. Generally, the only times that I do pay attention to the name as a word is when it seems to me to jar with my experience of the character. There was one case in which a character with a name I didn’t think fit nearly ruined the book for me, because every single time she showed up I was drawn so far out of the story. More recently, I was occasionally distracted by two out of three women in Mothers & Daughters by Rae Meadows having flower names, although that book I still very much enjoyed. And, in fact, in that case the name issue caused me to continue to think about the book long after I had finished it, and I have now concocted a reason for the way the names flowed from one generation to the next which I think is consistent with the motivations of the characters. So, I suppose in that case the names eventually actually added to the story for me.

I’m putting all of this out there hoping that I’m not completely alone. Do you pay attention to the names of characters? Do character names ever change how you feel about a book? Am I insane?

I’d also love to hear from some authors how they name their characters. Just names you like? Names that mean something specific to the character? Another way?

16 comments to A Rose by Any Other Name…

  • I definitely associate characters with their names. I’m much more likely to forget their physical description and just make up my own. I do get annoyed when author’s feel the need to give everyone a unique name though. I’m perfectly ok with a Jennifer 😉 in my books. Overly unique names will take me out of the story.

    That said, I do often forget characters’ names when I am done reading and I have to look them up when I write the review. Which could probably be solved by actually writing my reviews in a timely manner…

  • I often give little to no thought about character’s names, although there have been a few instances where a name has really irritated me!

  • I have to laugh. The first thing I thought when I started to read this post is I wonder if she’ll mention how much she disliked the name in the Language of Trees.

    I’m all about characters names. I get a sense of who they are by their name and tend to get a little huffy when I think the author just grabs at names higgly piggy.

    Of course, I have the memory of a gnat so unless it’s something remarkable I tend to forget pretty darn quick.

    • Ha! I think I’m now known as “that girl who really didn’t like the character name in The Language of Trees.” I wonder how many times I’ve mentioned it now?

  • I like when character names are meaningful to the character or to the story. Of course, that can’t always be the case. But yeah, I often can’t remember all the character names once I’m done reading. I do get irritated if the cover art depicts the character differently than described, though.

  • I am completely with you on this. I instantly forget character names and descriptions. I think I just do that trick where I recognize them by first letter and relative length of name without actually processing their names. It throws me off when there are two characters with similar names more than anything else!

    • Ooh, that’s a good trick, maybe that’s what I do. It is sort of a hard thing to really pay attention to without changing your habits accidentally. I’m just glad to know I’m not crazy!

  • Even for me, it’s important that names of characters go well with the characters themselves. It doesn’t really ruin or make a reading experience for me, but I do notice it. I do feel it’s a weird proposition though – what are the odds that names of real people go well with them? Even when I visit a new blog, it will be days before I actually look at the blogger’s name. By then I would already have had an idea of the blogger’s personality, likes, dislikes. So when I finally find out the name, it might either slide in smoothly into one of the drawers in my head, or I’ll spend some time thinking that the name just doesn’t suit the person. I guess that goes for me in books as well.

    • I totally get what you mean. If the names are relatively common I just usually stay in the ‘not noticing them’ category. It is when there is something particularly unusual about them that I notice and it bothers me. If your name is really unusual then your parents probably chose it for a reason, and shouldn’t that have influenced the life you led growing up, and thus the person you are today? It won’t be everything, but it should be part of your story somehow.

  • I always remember character names! That’s probably why it bothers me so much when they’re bad – like something you’d find in a romance novel when you’re reading a detective novel, or when everyone has “fancy” names. I have gone through some books thinking, “Really? Eduardo, Jaden, Addison, Raphael? Wasn’t there anyone in town named Mike or Bill?”

  • I loved this — I had to laugh because I too get hung up on the most random things when I read. Although I think the name thing isn’t random — names can say so much about a person’s age, class, economic situation, family educational background, ethnic heritage, etc. so I especially notice when a name doesn’t ring true to a character or a story. (For example, 30-something characters who don’t have names from the 80s and instead have names popular for those born in the last few years — that drives me bonkers!)

  • Amy

    Characters names are extremely important. Fortunately, I usually am able to trust the author’s names for the characters but I understand and have experienced character’s names negatively impacting the story. Typically, I can’t recall any specific examples right now.
    But I have read books in which I thought the characters were terribly mis-named. And I also strongly dislike when characters are purposely given obvious names that have a meaning in relation to the plot. It feels as if the author doesn’t trust readers enough to get the storyline with out additional details!
    If I come up with the titles that I really had difficulty withy character’s names, I’ll be back!

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