A Name

I also think that names are an opportunity for characterization. I think that now because of a chap who pointed out to me once that the title of a poem is an opportunity. I still don’t understand how the title of a poem is an opportunity (I mean, how it works), but I have learned not to read his poems without noticing the title.

It is a part I usually neglect, including sub-titles in texts, notes and other devices I tend to think as merely decorative, even when they’re not. And in naming characters, you can get away with it if your character is otherwise clear. I think it does show, however, once you understand, how important the names of minor characters can be.

Here’s what I mean from The Hunger Games. Nothing can be more regrettable than the name Katniss. But we get the character notwithstanding. The Hunger Games is as strong as that strong character, and she is a remarkable one that you like. The story draws you into her struggle because of who she is. But the only thing worse than her name is the pet name she unfortunately has, Katnip. Then there’s Peeta. Whatever the thought process behind that name, the reader thinks: Well, she didn’t want to do Peter because they’re in the future, so she did Peeta, which is close but different. The effect, whatever Suzanne Collins intended, is in the reader to conjecture a kind of writerly laziness: it is a cheap name, and gives us nothing. Gale on the other hand, whether inadvertently or deliberately, suggests strength and steady if impetuous will. It does that without trying, and when you find the guy is like that, as a reader you’re pleased. It lends him much that doesn’t need to be described, and reinforces what the participating reader anticipates.

How much more if you do it with a minor character who does or says little, but enough, when you get a name that carries a lot of the character forward in the reader’s mind.

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3 thoughts on “A Name

  1. I am told Katniss (genus: Sagittaria) is a flower (sister of Primrose) and that Peeta is a form of Pita because he is a baker’s son in a land of hunger. Still haven’t read the books; this comes from kids and other friends. Would have never seen it myself. But does it make the most of the opportunity you point out?

    The main character in the book I’m reading currently (De Vries’s The Blood of the Lamb) is Don Wanderhope. Which ends up fitting but doesn’t give away too much.

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