“Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?” The technically correct answer to Shakespeare’s question is – yes. The rose could be called the “stinkweed” and it would still have the same smell, although I’m sure it wouldn’t be nearly as popular as a romantic gift.
As a writer, I give a lot of thought to names. Maybe too much. But names are important; I’ve heard the adage “he that names the world owns it.” Pretty much the first task assigned to Adam was to name all the critters he shared the Garden of Eden with. When scientists discover or identify new species, they get to name it and thus that creature is forever known by that name. The importance of names appears in folklore; many creatures (such as some types of fairies and many demons) do not give out their true names. I’m a fan of meaningful character and place names although sometimes the meaning is pretty obscure to everyone who isn’t me (and sometimes I just get lazy so there is no inherent meaning). I also like to make sure the names of my character make sense in context. That is, I don’t like the mixed bag o’ names. I also don’t like names that are exotic for their own sake. I’ve discussed naming conventions a bit in my entry on the fantasy genre, but now I’m going to go into excruciating detail. Consider this fair warning, fair readers, to get yourself a snack and settle in.
1) Mixed bag o’names – this is when an author uses modern, culturally associated names and just mixes them up. I find this confusing and undesirable because culturally associated names are like tropes; they can be used as shortcuts for describing the culture. For example, if I see a party of adventurers called Makato, Minako, Rei, Usagi, and Ami, I’m going to assume the author chose those names because the culture these people belong to resembles Japanese culture in many aspects (which hopefully the author will explain because after all, cultures change over time even if naming conventions don’t). But if I see a party with names like a party of adventures named John, Raj, Akira, Miguel, Guenter, and Eloriniliali, I have no idea what culture the author is trying to associate his/her characters with. Heck, I can’t even identify the probable gender of the character. Hopefully the author will explain the culture, and perhaps there is a good reason for the mixed bag o’names. But I’ve seen some authors deliberately use the mixed bag o’names because they want to give the impression of an entirely different culture but then fail to actually describe that culture.
2) Exotic for its own sake. This is pretty common in fantasy thanks to Tolkien. However, he was a medieval scholar and linguistic expert so when he made up all his names, there was a rhyme and reason to it. His names were not actually exotic for their own sake; they made sense within the context of the language he had invented. Too many authors in the fantasy genre especially (and occasionally sci-fi) make up names that sound exotic but there’s no context for it. Don’t misunderstand me; there is a reason to use exotic-sounding names. If an author has created a standard fantasy world (that is, semi-medieval European) in which characters are given names like Ned, Robb, and Jeffrey, then introduces a character from a far-off and little-known civilization, it would make more sense (to me, anyway) for the character to have an exotic-sounding name like “Tanithil” instead of a name like “Fred.” Exotic names are easy ways to indicate that the character bearing the name is exotic to the main civilization.
3) Meaningful names. These are names that are supposed to tell the reader (or viewer) something about the character. Even names that are common like Ned and Fred have meaning, which is why parents tend to agonize about what to name their children. Sometimes parents give their children stupid names (like “Apple” or “Moon Unit”) but that says more about the parents than the child. Some countries actually have governmental regulations on what children can be named. So names are a serious business. Some authors really love the meaningful names. The most famous modern example is J. K. Rowling. She had exotic names that made sense within the wizarding culture but would sound exotic to non-wizards. I also noticed she gave the “good” wizard family of the Weasleys mainstream (one might even say “muggle”) names like “Ron,” “Fred,” and “George” while the “bad” wizard family of the Blacks exotic names like “Sirius,” “Andromeda,” and “Narcissa.” Her naming wasn’t entirely consistent, and I think her point was that two old wizarding families have radically different views of the world, and the names were a way to illustrate that point. Some of her names were also spoilers. Gosh, gee, who would have thought a guy named “Remus Lupin” would turn out to be a werewolf?
Sometimes meaningful names are less obvious. That is, the inherent meaning of the name is not as important as the association. For example, the matriarch of the Weasley family’s name is “Molly.” The name is a variation of Mary, the exact meaning of which is of some debate. But Molly is often considered an Irish name, as well as being part of the word “mollycoddle” which Molly tended to do in the story (at least until she got angry). Or, for a TV example, the evil telepathic cop in “Babylon 5” was named “Alfred Bester,” but the name “Alfred” roughly means “elf counsel,” so the name is not directly meaningful. However, Alfred Bester was a famous sci-fi writer whose treatment of telepathy was heavily used in “Babylon 5.” There can be a slight problem with names that are meaningful by association if the association is not known to the reader (or viewer; I had no idea who Alfred Bester was when I watched that show so that meaning sailed right over my head).
I like meaningful names because I consider it kind of an easter egg to the reader (although sometimes it can be a spoiler). Not every name is meaningful in any way; sometimes I just can’t think of a meaning or association, and sometimes I’m just plain lazy. To be fair, sometimes I feel I’m very obvious with my names. In my fantasy novel, I gave my lead characters actual (if obscure) names. The Avatar of Light’s name means “light” and the Avatar of Darkness’s name means “dark.” If I write any sequels, I’ll continue to use actual (and obscure) names because it turns out there are a lot of names that mean “light” or “dark.” In fact, I have a name bank section of my notes where I keep a running list of names and their meanings just in case I need them later (sometimes I actually am organized). On the other hand, I couldn’t be quite as obvious with my lead characters in “Necromancy” because I needed their real names to be easily associated with their stage names. I have a lot of names that are meaningful by association in that book (for example, in “Triskaidekaphobia,” the band meets a little girl named “Alice” [named after Alice in Wonderland] and two boys named John and Michael [named after the Darling children in Peter Pan, who joined the Lost Boys]). Sometimes I like names that are puns too, but those are harder to come up with (Naoko Takeuchi is really good at this). And sometimes I don’t even give characters names. I do that deliberately because of the idea that names have power. So if a character doesn’t have a name, or gives a fake name, that alone provides some insight into the nature of the character.
So perhaps there is another answer to Shakespeare’s question, “What’s in a name?” The answer is – sometimes an awful lot.