L.B.: Episode IV

Left Behind, pg. 221

People seemed reluctant to leave, even after Bruce closed in prayer. Many stayed to get acquainted, and it became obvious that a new congregation had begun. The name of the church was more appropriate than ever. New Hope.

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A Cautionary Note to Young Writers

As you select names for your characters, for the businesses where they work, and for the town or city in which your story is set, you may decide that these names should be not only apt, but Meaningful.

Good for you. Meaningful Names can reinforce character and theme. They can be useful, beautiful things.

But, unless your name is John Bunyan, some subtlety is required. Trust your readers.

Once you've carefully chosen a Meaningful Name, you may begin to worry that readers will miss it. Such worry can lead you to think you need to underscore and italicize your Meaningful Name to make sure that readers recognize and appreciate it. No good can come of this. Give in to such worries and soon you'll be writing things like:

Shepherd thought of her name, Grace, and it seemed more appropriate than ever. She had come into his life unbidden and undeserved …

Or like this:

Jackson stood by the river that bore his family name and listened to the distant roaring of the waterfall. Jackson Falls, he thought, bitterly. And this name, the name of the falls and of the town and, yes, dear reader, of this short story and this collection of short stories, seemed to him more appropriate than ever …

Or like this:

People seemed reluctant to leave, even after Bruce closed in prayer. Many stayed to get acquainted, and it became obvious that a new congregation had begun. The name of the church was more appropriate than ever. New Hope.

Don't do this. Trust yourself, trust your readers, and don't beat them over the head with your Meaningful Names.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

Feel free, in comments below, to offer more examples — real or imaginary — of reader abuse through the unsubtle use of Meaningful Names.

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  • WereBear

    My personal favorite, from the “Prey” series of John Sandford:
    Detective Del Capslock

  • cjmr’s husband

    I always delete the capslocks from my keyboards. The thing’s a bloody pain.

  • Andrew J.

    Being “Earnest” was a slang term for gay at the time “The Importance of Being Earnest” was written; Wilde later came out of the closet as gay himself.

  • Tim Lehnerer

    There’s an adventure-pulp series called MARK HARDIN, THE PENETRATOR. I think that beats just about everything in the thread other than Hiro Protagonist.

  • Lucia

    for example Perry Mason’s name obviously reflects that he parries the opposing lawyer’s attacks and builds a defense case as a strong as a wall of masonry
    How many years ago? Sounds like my French teacher wrote it.

  • twig

    Mark Hardin needs to do a Left Behind cameo. He fits in.

  • Axiomatic

    To quot a more worthy individual than myself, but whose name does not come to my mind, they’re going “DO YOU SEE WHAT I’M GETTING AT HERE????”

  • Manalive

    Dickens’ names are meaningful, without being heavyhanded: “Uriah Heep, Mr. Micawber…” Somehow the names tell you who the character is without having any sort of dictionary-sense meaning. I also have to say that I love the names in Harry Potter. I think “Diagon Alley” is brilliant. Names have to be considered within the genre: I wouldn’t want to criticize Spenser, for example. Even with allegorical names, there’s he’s still trusting his readers. Part of what makes this scene from Left Behind fail, is the incongruity of an allegorical (well, okay, that’s a stretch…) name in a book so obsessed with logistics.

  • Cactus Wren

    A nice twist on this notion is in Robin McKinley’s Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast. The heroine is the youngest of three sisters: Grace, Hope, and Honour. At about age five, “when I first discovered that our names meant something besides you-come-here”, Honour asked her father about them: he explained the concepts of “grace” and “hope”, but stumbled in explaining “honour” to a small child. His daughter “heard him out, but with an expression of deepening disgust”, and earned her nickname with the comment “Huh!” I’d rather be Beauty.”
    All three of us were pretty children, with curly blond hair and blue-grey eyes … Grace, who was seven years older than I, grew into a beautiful, and profoundly graceful, young girl. Her hair was wavy and fine and luxuriant, and as butter-yellow as it had been when she was a baby (said doting friends of the family) and her eyes were long-lashed and as blue as a clear May morning (said her doting swains). Hope’s hair darkened to a rich chestnut-brown, and her bit eyes turned a smoky green…. Both were tall and slim, with tiny waists, short straight noses, dimples when they smiled, and small delicate hands and feet.
    I was five years younger than Hope, and I don’t know what happened to me. As I grew older, my hair turned mousy, neither blond nor brown, and the baby curl fell out until all that was left was a stubborn refusal to co-operate with the curling iron; my eyes turned a muddy hazel. Worse, I didn’t grow; I was thin, awkward, and undersized, with big long-fingered hands and huge feet. Worst of all, when I turned thirteen, I broke out in spots. There hadn’t been a spot in our mother’s family for centuries, I was sure….
    … By the time it was evident that I was going to let the family down by being plain, I’d been called Beauty for over six years; and while I came to hate the name, I was too proud to ask that it be discarded. I wasn’t really very fond of my given name, Honour, either, if it came to that: It sounded sallow and angular to me, as if “honourable” were the best that could be said of me.
    And as it turns out, that the heroine is “honourable” is at least as important to the story as whether or not she is beautiful.

  • pablo

    Perelandra had me for a while until its ridiculousness reached critical mass. That Hideous Strength though is just a mess. He tried to cobble a story out of too many ideas.

  • Cactus Wren

    Oh, and leave us not forget two I read in my teens: Hannah Hurnard’s Hinds’ Feet on High Places and Mountains of Spices, in which the heroine, Much-Afraid, — well, let me give you a taste:
    For several years Much-Afraid had been in the service of the Chief Shepherd whose great flocks were pastured down in the Valley of Humiliation. She lived with her friends and fellow workers Mercy and Peace in a tranquil little white cottage in the village of Much-Trembling…. She was a member of the Family of Fearings, and her relatives were scattered all over the valley, so that she could never really escape from them. She was an orphan, and had been brought up in the home of her aunt, poor Mrs. Dismal Forebodings, with her two cousins Gloomy and Spiteful and their brother Craven Fear, a great bully who habitually tormented and persecuted her …
    I can think of no adequate comment.

  • Rasselas

    “Rayford Steele, I want you to meet our brother in Christ, Jim Callcenter.”
    “Callcenter? Of the Industrial Park 17 Callcenters?”
    “No, they married into the Router clan a while ago. My daddy married a Traveldesk.”

  • thebewilderness

    I rather like the apt name game when it is cleverly done. I resent being instructed by the author that the name is apt.
    This is just one of several ways authors intrude themselves on the story they ought properly to be paying attention to telling. It is hard to respect an author who so clearly does not respect their readers.

  • Reverend Ref

    While not so meaningful as what has been mentioned, or even on par with great literature, I still think that Corky Sherwood-Forrest from “Murphy Brown” was one of the great names of all time.

  • Hagsrus

    ++”Earnest” was a slang term for gay++
    I didn’t know that!
    (BTW the actual *name* is Ernest, though.)

  • Hagsrus

    Names that always struck me as strange in Silent Planet are Malacandra and Maleldil — I expect the “mal” prefix to indicate evil.
    Most positive memories: Ransom’s translation of Weston’s speech in chapter 20.
    Somewhere in Perelandra an admonition not to cry encore to God.
    I always wondered why the Lady was not the Queen, and what the King had been up to all this time. Presumably not being shepherded through his own temptations by a Silent Planet woman named Sophia!

  • Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    Rasselas, that was hysterical. Bravo. Will there be a sequel?
    Cactus Wren, Beauty is one of my favoritest books ever. (Robin McKinley has become one of my favoritest authors, in fact. And her novel Deerskin is on my yearly reread-and-cry-a-lot list; it’s one of the most beautiful examples I can think of in which the author writes very bad things happening to their characters yet obviously cares about those characters tenderly, deeply, infinitely.) The Beast’s response to Beauty’s confession that this is not her given name is priceless: paraphrased from memory, that would be, “Then I welcome both Beauty and Honour into my home. Indeed, I am most fortunate.”
    Oddly enough, I’ve read Hind’s Feet in High Places. When a book is an unabashed analogy and makes no bones about it, it can get away with names like that, at least as far as I’m concerned. I was given a copy by my eighth grade Sunday School teacher, a young man who played the guitar at Mass and was studying to be a priest. He knew I’d chosen not to get confirmed, and respected that, and gave me good, respectable answers to my religious questions. So I read the book wanting very much to like it, and oddly enough, I did like it. It doesn’t get reread nearly as often as other paperbacks on my shelf, but I do enjoy it–mainly for the writing, which has some lovely poetic moments. (Plus I’ve always loved the “Rise up my love, my fair one, and come away” part of the Song of Songs.) I just have to mentally excuse myself from the lesson the book is trying to teach, is all.

  • Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    Hagsrus, the “mal” thing always half-confuses me, too. I just figured that the Language Of The Spheres wasn’t in the Latin family.
    And I agree with you totally about the Marsian translation of Weston’s speech. I think it’s an indication of a virtuous language that malice and duplicitous intentions are laid so bare when translated into it. Lewis does a good job of giving us that indication without having to teach us the language itself.
    But where do you get the impression that the Lady is not considered a Queen? Didn’t Ransom call the couple “Your Majesties”, in the plural like that?

  • Hagsrus

    Sorry, unclear — I meant why is she called the Lady rather than the Queen? I suppose because Ransom didn’t know she was at first — it’s been ages since I read it.
    I’m another McKinley fan, and also of her husband, Peter Dickinson, whose prose is just sheer unpretentious pleasure.

  • Lucia

    I haven’t read it in a really long time either, but I think there is an implication that the Lady isn’t really a Queen until there’s a King for her to be Queen to. OTOH maybe Lewis wasn’t quite as much of a sexist pig as I give him credit for…

  • Cactus Wren

    Nicole! Have you read McKinley’s comments on Deerskin, and on readers’ reactions to it, at her website? Check it out, at http://www.robinmckinley.com/FAQ/FAQ05.html#Deerskin — powerful stuff:
    I also hear from the people who want to hang, draw and quarter me for writing about So Nasty A Subject. I occasionally receive very, very squirrelly letters about all of my books, but Deerskin is the only one I’ve ever had hate mail for…. One of the first ‘You Evil Person for Writing this Foul and Revolting Book’ letters told me that not only had I ‘betrayed’ my audience (huh?) but that the princess/heroine in fairy tales (and therefore books that grew from fairy tales) had to be a virgin and by destroying her virginity I had destroyed my heroine.
    It’s a great read. And her critique of the original fairy tale, Perrault’s “Donkeyskin”, is savage.
    (I love the moment when I realize that Prince Ossin is going to be a Good Guy: it’s not because he’s a Prince Of The Blood, not because he wears Shining Armor and Rides Into Battle On His Mighty Steed, not because he Slays All The Enemies With His Flashing Sword — he does none of those things, and didn’t ask to be born a prince — but because he sits up at night with orphaned puppies.)

  • mr. memento

    I can’t remember the name, but there’s a really bad dystopian novel where the U.S. is run by a corrupt administration who pretend to all be pious Christians. The “hit you over the head” names are all pornographic in nature: the president’s name is “Bush”; the vice-president’s name is “Dick”; the Secretary of State’s first name is pronounced “Colon”; the House Majority Leader’s last name is “Boehner”; and so on.
    Man, that book sucked.

  • skj

    Independence Day: Bill Pullman gives a speech about the meaning of the title of the movie. “This is our Independence Day!” Thanks. screenwriter, I couldn’t have put that together for myself. Because I am a MORON

  • pat greene

    I always thought Angel in Rent verged on being too obvious, but it still worked.
    And, mr. memento — do happen to know how the book you mentioned ended?

  • Dahne

    In one of Terry Pratchett’s books, Lords and Ladies I believe, he introduces a minor character whose father had heard of naming one’s daughters after virtues and somewhere gotten the wrong idea about the corresponding tradition for naming boys. Thus, all his sons are named after vices. By the same universal law by which Grace is clumsy and Chastity becomes a poledancer, all of his sons turn out to be fine, upstanding citizens.
    Beastiality Carter is, incidentally, very kind to animals.
    On the subject of Lewis: I confess to being one of the kids who loved the books and was somehow never distracted by the whoosh of the message going right over my head. During the scene beside the stream in The Silver Chair where the girl is very thirsty and Aslan refuses to promise not to kill her while she has a drink, which is, in retrospect, a lovely allegory on fear of faith, I clearly remember thinking, “Man, that’s just mean.”

  • Dahne

    mr. memento – I remember that one. I gave up on it when the speeches started pulling quotes directly from 1984.

  • cjmr’s husband

    Being “Earnest” was a slang term for gay
    Finally answering half of the question about Bert and Ernie…

  • Fraser

    I adored Beauty, but I haven’t liked most of McKinley’s other work. It may have something to do that (according to an introduction to her later, unrelated rewrite of the same fairytale) she didn’t like the book much herself and considers it a crappy neophyte’s first effort (in contrast to the later, more faithful, and much more boring retelling).
    Going back to names, there’s one Abbott and costello movie where the “Flying Bordellos” acrobatic act slipped by the Hays Office.

  • Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    Oh, wow. Cactus Wren, some people just entirely miss the point, don’t they? How sad. I must go read the rest of the commentary. All I know is, when at last Deerskin reaches the front of our bedtime read-aloud queue, I will have to hand the book to my husband for the last page-and-a-hald because I will not be able to make an intelligible sound.
    Dahne, that scene troubled me, too. Gave me chills, though. I thought it a very very lion-like thing to say, when I first read it and was unaware of the faith/Christ allegory. Staying alive sometimes means confronting great danger, and if Jill couldn’t do that on the cliff above the world, she’d have a very hard time doing it on the quest.

  • Steve

    In case no one got it, I thought I should explain the subtelty of Woody Woodpecker.
    “Woody Woodpecker pondered his name. You see, his last name was Woodpecker, because, well, he was one. Woody on the other hand… Could it be a nickname of his surname, or a reference to the fact that he spent his days pecking wood? Or perhaps he was named after US President Woodrow Wilson. Perhaps it was a reminder of his consistently erect penis. The question at hand drove Woody off the edge. He was last seen being tossed from a dive bar after pecking ‘Who am I?’ in to the bar countertop.”

  • Rasselas

    Only now does it occur to me that “Sonny Crockett” might be a Meaningful Name.

  • Hagsrus

    On the McKinley quote:
    This reminds me a bit of a *very* long discussion.
    which started:
    “The witch books, in my opinion, are anti-story. They take everything that is beautiful and enchanting and good about stories and says no, this is a lie. Not only does it insult stories, but it attempts to grind them up, and kill them.”
    On Lewis:
    I read him with a mixture of pleasure (his prose is beautiful) and annoyance. He often makes excellent points but the misogyny sets me muttering.

  • Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    Oh my goodness, Hagsrus. Like I needed another “Agressive Flake” specimen! Oh, my…
    (And if the witch books aren’t also stories then what the flying flip are they, I ask you? …but that’s a question that belongs on another page, I suppose.)

  • Nerem

    In the immensely epic (while at times disturbingly dark and hilariously funny) series ‘The Original Generation’, there’s several Meaningful Names, but they are always happily hidden behind either the German or Hebrew language. One of my favorite ones is this German nobleman and master chef’s name when he is in disguise… Ratsel Feinschumacher. Or ‘The Mystery That Tastes Good’, aka ‘The Mysterious Chef’. Which fits him to an utter T, but he chose that name himself, which makes it even more funny. But others are a bit more or less obvious. Like Rebi Torah. AKA ‘Rabbi Torah’. Or ‘Teacher of the Torah’. Though that isn’t her real name either, and is basically a codename. But there’s always stuff that might be a Meaningful Name if I could figure out the meanign behind it. Like Ibis Douglas or Srey Presti.

  • none

    Did you know there is a:
    and a
    and a
    (That last one just had to have that address, I suppose.)

  • none

    The clever British writer Terry Pratchett often makes playful use of names. In one book, I can’t remember which, he has an exchange between a series of characters with names like Baker, Thatcher but their trades don’t match their names (ie, Baker the Carter said … Thatcher the Smith replied … ). He used a similar trick in another book where a group of sisters with names like Prudence and Chastity were all characters of ill repute.
    Gifted writers can make very effective use of meaningful (or in the above case, meaningless) names. But you’re right, it only works if you trust your readers to get it.

  • Bugmaster

    …Not to mention Anathema Device, one of the protagonists of Good Omens. Or even Magrat, a child of country folk who treasure spelling, and thus use it very sparingly.

  • Grumpy

    I mentioned this last week, but…
    People seemed reluctant to leave…
    This narrator seems unable to ascertain people’s true feelings, or at least of describing what people are actually doing and letting me conclude for myself what they’re feeling.

  • ajay

    Tolkien explains that some of his names have meaning: Samwise means “half-wise” and Hamfast means “home-fast” or “stick-at-home”.

  • Haukur

    Gríma is Old Norse for “mask” and Wormtongue is the nickname of the hero of Gunnlaugs saga.

  • none

    Tolkien explains that some of his names have meaning: Samwise means “half-wise” and Hamfast means “home-fast” or “stick-at-home”.
    And I believe Shatlots had irritable bowel syndrome.

  • Dave

    I always liked Goldie Hawn’s character’s name in Foul Play — Gloria Mundy.

  • Fenix

    mr. memento, can you tell me how the book ends? I’m still only halfway through it, and MAN is it painful.

  • borealys

    Another writer who makes clever use of names is Jasper Fforde. My favourite are the red-shirt detectives in “Lost in a Good Book” — Agents Kannon and Phodder, Agents Dedmen and Walken, etc.

  • aunursa

    According to the Wikipedia article, The studio did not want the film to use the title Independence Day, so Bill Pullman ad-libbed the final line in his speech to include the title.

  • Bugmaster

    Huh, the Witch books are actually my favorites, especially The Wee Free men (that book “leaves white-hot traces upon the soul”, as Pratchett would say). It’s like Granny Weatherwax said: “witches give people what they know they need, not what we think they ought to want”. The Witch books aren’t (only) about destroying stories; they’re about breaking free from someone else’s story; someone else’s concocted idea of how you should live your life. It’s about refusing to meekly submit your will to another person. That’s a very powerful notion; and it’s a notion that is usually absent in classic fairy-tales.
    Rincewind also mentions this: “…when that sort of person started talking about things being more important than people, you knew you were in big trouble”. People are important; fairytales are not.
    The original LJ poster reminds me of those people who complain that Harry Potter (the first one) is a bad book because it doesn’t clearly define who’s good and who’s bad right from the outset. Instead, it dares to present characters in shades of gray, as though they lived in the real world or something. The audacity !
    And the comment about Pratchett perverting the vampire mythos just made me laugh. Reminds me of the Amazon comments on the Merlin miniseries: “this isn’t how things in Arthurian times really happened !” Really ? How do you know ? Were you there ?

  • Francis

    Grima Wormtongue and Darth Tyrannus do not count. Grima who is called the Wormtongue – it was a nickname given to him for being especially cunning and unpleasant and I see absolutely no reason why nicknames shouldn’t reflect personality in books. As for Darth Tyrannus (real name Dooku or Count Dooku), that was a title he picked for himself as he wanted to be a strong leader, and originally wanted to lead the Jedi back to their former glory and purity. All Sith Names are chosen to reflect the nature of the Sith (Darth (in)Sidious was subtle, Darth Maul was forceful, and as for Darth Vader, well…). If names are chosen by the character or other people in the universe to reflect the nature of that person sith knowledge of that nature, it isn’t the writer beating you over the head with Meaningful Names, it’s the characters.
    As for Lewis, Screwtape was brilliant, Narnia was wonderful, but you can keep the rest of the cannon.

  • bulbul

    As for Lewis, Screwtape was brilliant, Narnia was wonderful, but you can keep the rest of the cannon.
    Well, ok, if you mean the sci-fi trilogy. But have you read his essays?

  • aj

    Louis Cipher. . . . Louis Cipher. . . . Lucifer?!? -Angel Heart-

  • Jeff R.

    In one of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, there is a minister named Mr. Quiverfull. He has twelve children.
    Several ships the Pequod encounters in Moby Dick have not so subtle names. The Jungfrau has not caught a whale. The Rachel has lost a boat with the captain’s son and is “weeping for her children.”