What's in a name?
I was asked a question today by my editor, one that immediately after reading the email, spun my top and cancelled out all other thoughts in my brain. I'll tell you the question, but I'm going to take a few creative liberties with the wording (only because I don't want to "spill the beans"):
How do you feel about changing the name of one of your main characters?
My first thought: No. No. No. No. NO. NO NO NO NO NO.
Generally, I'm usually pretty open to change, even where my writing is concerned. I'm always looking for ways to improve my writing and my stories, but this question cancelled out any desire for improvement. All I could see was one of my favorite characters fall away into some other personality, some other name.
But then I took a minute. I stepped back. I remembered that my editor is only trying to make my story better, and so I started to think more about this character's name, and about any names I had ever created. Before I knew it, I had a new outlook on the "name thing".
In writing, when you take a name down to it's most basic idea, all you are really left with is a label. This label merely identifies a character (and allows me to refer to my characters as something other than "he", "she", or "it"). The name does not create a personality, it does not define the person, nor does it necessarily describe appearance...unless your name happens to be "Porky" and you are, in fact, a pig.
Along with this sudden realization, I found myself looking back over my years of writing, and I discovered that I have been doing something wrong. Sometimes, I do try to make the name more powerful than the character.
Did you catch that? The super mysterious character should get a super mysterious name. Super evil...he gets a super evil name. Guess what kind of name the super chivalrous guy gets?
Now I didn't do this for every character, and certainly, I didn't do it for even every main character, just the ones I wanted to stand out a little more. And that was when I realized I was sometimes creating names that would purposely stand out, almost like bolding the text, so that my reader would know that my character was...myyyyysterrrrrious. Little did I know, that mysterious name could be detracting from the story and confusing my readers.
I'm sure I didn't do this intentionally, because the more I worked on developing the character, the less important the name became. But by that time, I was in love with this character and their name had become a part of them. Changing their name meant changing what and who they are.
I realize now how silly that is. I'm a better writer than that. My characters come alive because of their actions, their emotions, and their personalities (all of which I put on the page).
They are not who they are because they have a fancy name. Well...Sir Fancypants is.