My wife was sharing with me one of her short stories she wrote in high school (as a part of a project or fun, I can’t quite remember). She told me that she picked out the names of the characters very purposefully throughout the creative process, cross-referencing names with meanings and origins that illuminated aspects of the plot. Truth be told, I did the same thing in high school, writing a many-part story called “Heavy Metal Dawn,” for which I labored months without any consideration for what I would do with the story at its conclusion. I think it is for this reason that I ultimately gave up on it. Anyways, I did the same thing as my wife. Taking Japanese words and appropriating them as “names” (ie. “Guita Watarimono,” or “Guitar Wanderer”), I achieved nigh epic heights of weeaboory (IPA - wiːəburē). And I think it is for this reason, now that I’m older, that I remember that moment, cringing. Names don’t mean anything. They are just things that we call ourselves, because our parents made the choice for us.
This is a postmodern idea, that meaning is fluid and ever changing. It is why gender, politics, race, and religion are all relative and mean nothing anymore. Naturally, then, I would scoff now at an idea like a name and a meaning behind it somehow appending certain virtues and traits. For instance, my name is “Stuart.” Stuart derives from an Old English portmanteau of stig ("house") and weard ("guard"). The later British equivalent is “Steward” and the Anglicized version is “Stuart.” My surname, “Warren,” is eponymous of (what according to Google Dictionary is) “an enclosed piece of land set aside for breeding game, especially rabbits.”
Right from the get-go I am at odds with this. Though I am trustworthy, capable of taking tasks and endeavor to please those I meet, I am not a leader. In fact, growing up I was an outcast. My name, for the most part, has hung around my neck as an albatross since my birth as a sign of my failure to live up to my name’s meaning and import. And while “Warren” maintains some regal quality to it, I hardly imagine myself to be equivalent to a labyrinthine network of burrows, or a hunting ground for rabbits in the middle ages. Patronyms also create names by just combining the name of your father and your sex (Angason for boy or Agnadóttir for girl, in Icelandic). But what if your father was an asshole? Your name is now anathema to any prospects going forward. In any case, I must hate first names because I’m salty as a motherfucker, I guess…
While a first name like “Agni” may confer the legacy of a legendary Swedish king or a Hindu fire deity, the surname was typically an embellishment of the first name. In English traditions, last names were conferred based on the profession of your father, like Smith (From Wikipedia: refers to a smith, originally deriving from smið or smiþ, the Old English term meaning one who works in metal related to the word smitan, the Old English form of smite, which also meant strike.) or Cooper (from Ancestry.com: “a repairer of wooden vessels such as barrels, tubs, buckets, casks, and vats, from Middle English couper, cowper.”). But does one want to be their father? Or take their father’s profession? That is more of a problem for today. Back then, there was no choice in the matter. A trade brought in money that paid feudal dues.
When it comes to writing, in light of the above, I take a different approach. Names aren’t as important to me as the experiential quality. Living with a character throughout a story, a name like “Roberto” will imbue whatever quality you desire. In Umberto Eco’s book The Island of the Day Before, Roberto’s character evolves over the course of the story, so any preconceptions about the name “Roberto” quickly fade away. Because of this experience I have with reading, I spend no time consulting with reference materials to find “appropriate” names for my characters. Instead, I choose names arbitrarily (most of the time). Because that is what life is like: random and chaotic. I know someone named “Tabitha,” which is a traditional name. But she exudes an eclectic style that seems in conflict with her name. Likewise, I have heard stories of POWs and veterans naming their children after their fallen brothers, as a way of immortalizing their memory, though their children will live their own lives, without the experiential import of their naming. So the use of naming, to me at least, isn’t very important.
Despite all that I’ve said, we did name our daughter “Eowyn,” which is a fictional name invented by J.R.R. Tolkien, invoking the Old English naming methodologies. Tolkien applied this name to a character in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, who stands down a demon king, fulfilling an ancient prophesy to smite evil. Do I necessarily want my daughter to challenge a demon to mortal combat? Not really. But we chose the name for her because it embodies what we wish her to be: strong, confident, and assertive. So, at the end of all this, I’m just a hypocrite. But who isn’t? The defining difference here is that the meaning of names in writing can be more effectively determined due to the innate determinism that defines writing, as opposed to real life, where meaning is in constant flux. And to reject that determinism, in my opinion, makes the work more true to life.