What’s In A Name? The Sound of Projected Morality


name-tagLast week I woke in the middle of the night, gripped by a conviction that I had to get up immediately and change half my character names. This was not, as you may imagine, a hugely popular move with the raptor. When pressed on why it had to be done, the answer was that the offending names ‘didn’t sound right’. Which got me thinking about the appearance and sound of names in general. We ascribe a lot of power to names, particularly in fiction where – lacking visual input on which we’d usually base a first impression of a person – we draw more inferences from the character name than perhaps we realise.

Show me the monkey!

I decided to do a little experiment. On SurveyMonkey I listed a selection of character names that I was confident no one would know (because I made them up) and asked people to assess – based purely on the look and sound of that name – whether each character was a good guy or a bad guy, or had the potential to be either. And a huge thank you to the 60 people who took part. 🙂

The results were interesting in a number of ways. Firstly, it seems like generally people started the survey feeling generous – out of 11 names, the first 7 had a majority vote of ‘good’ or ‘either’ – but became progressively more cynical. As one participant said at the penultimate name,

I’ve just realised I don’t trust anyone.

The reasons for people’s choices were varied and enlightening. They ranged from the sound of pronunciation – hard consonants are generally the mark of a bad guy, apparently – to cultural references. Here’s a few examples:

  1. Michel Augustin – ‘Has overtones of both romano-imperial (augustin) and catholic (michel/michael) which can be perceived in positive and negative lights. I would half expect this to be where the second part of a double double bluff would come from – either for good or ill.’
  2. Tatiana Danann – ‘Good. As a celt I loved the stories of the Tuatha De Dannon and Titania is queen of the fairies in some myths.’
  3. Dex Rothstein – ‘With the hard X sound and the cold stone of the name, I would assume that an author was going for an “evil” name here.’
  4. Vigor Solberg – ‘I think this is mostly because spy movies have trained me to expect Russians and Scandinavians to be bad guys.’

So, historical, mythological and cultural knowledge is all being drawn on to assess whether a character – based purely on their name – is good or bad. That’s a pretty powerful demonstration of how much subtext you can pack in, right there, and I’ll come back to it in a second.

The final thing that I found from this is that it didn’t stop at a judgement of the character’s moral bias. Some of the participants took it much further, projecting their own visions of appearance and characterisation onto the name:

  1. Michel Augustin – ‘Wears suits, no tie, mid European, mild mannered but cold blooded and devious’
  2. Ingrid Hummel – ‘Ingrid was Chieftan of a tribe of noble, proud warriors, as tough as the battleaxe she carried, but quick to laugh, and quick to trust.’
  3. Dex Rothstein – ‘Morally questionable genius, whose work goes onto inspire people on both teams. They interpret his work differently. He, whilst now old, dead, insane, or some combination of the above, would probably be comfortable with the ambiguity.’
  4. Dex Rothstein – ‘”You growin’ a beard, Dex?” “A guy as busy as me, we ain’t got time to shave.”‘
  5. Armand Tourville – ‘Thoughtful, dark haired, round glasses, tendency to steeple fingers, roll neck sweater with sports jacket. Either a fixer, or an information broker.’
  6. Sincerity Werner – ‘Bad-ass pensioner. Seems harmless enough, but takes no shit. The other heroes end up wishing they were half as heroic as her.’

Everything from appearance to character arc to actual voice. The imagination is amazing – it can take a single piece of information and build on it to create an entire personality. Apparently some names lend themselves more to this than others, too. Most on the list got one or maybe two such responses. Lydia Kaisermann, however, seemed to resonate with people:

  • ‘A gifted engineer/psychic (depending on the universe this is set in), initially starts on Team Evil, but has a change of conscience and uses her skills to overthrow the system from the inside.’
  • ‘Sassy, independent, female journalists, wears sweaters that are too tight.’
  • ‘Competent, possibly a scientist, engineer or bodyguard.’
  • ‘Whether she’s good or bad would depend on whether or not she follows her family ways or is fighting against them.’
  • ‘Nobody ever understood Lydia. They met her in once city, or another, but never twice.’

I don’t know who wrote that last one but I love it. It’s a story in itself, born out of a name presented without context.

As a final thought on the survey specifically, the accuracy rate was about 50%. Out of the 11 names, the majority vote for whether they were good, bad or either was correct in 6 cases. I’m not entirely sure what that tells you but I think it probably means that associations can be very personal things and tricky to predict.

Showing not telling

Okay, back to the power of subtext.

Clearly names carry meaning. They can provide us with an assumption about the character’s personality, appearance and personal history, as seen above. In fiction – particularly genre fiction – there seems to be a strong temptation to give a character a name that deliberately reflects something personal about them. Darth Vader, anyone?

I <3 Pitch Perfect

I ❤ Pitch Perfect

The thing is, this isn’t how the vast majority of cultures really works. Kids get given names as infants, before any personal characteristics can become apparent. It is, however, what readers have come to expect and therefore base their assumptions on. So, do we give the reader what they expect or not? This is something that’s been on my mind for a while. I have a culture within my stories which gives their kids the names of traits they value. The characters – in particular the two protagonists, Mercy and Vigor – don’t necessarily live up to these traits. When I shared this with members of my writing class, however, the general response to a particular scene was ‘but that doesn’t seem very merciful’.

The thing is that names are assumed to be telling the reader something about the character, when in fact they can be far more effectively used to show the reader something about the character’s culture. The name Armand Tourville, for example, instantly lets the reader know that this character comes from a very French-style background. Wolfgang von Kaisermann lets you know that within the Germanic culture there’s a class system, and this guy’s near the top. The characters Mercy, Vigor, Sincerity and Brawn give you a strong indication of the traits valued by that culture, and therefore how that culture is likely to behave. The writer is still tapping into the reader’s tendency to associate, but in a way that builds the world around the character rather than the character itself. Showing the world, not telling the character.

The linguistic Heisenberg Principle

‘All seagulls look as though their name were Emma.’   ~ Christian Morgenstern

The Heisenberg Principle states that the act of observing alters the reality being observed. With words, as soon as you label something, you change how people perceive it. Names are particularly good at that. There’s been a lot of research into the power of names and the automatic associations we make between sounds and images. This article in the New Yorker is a good starting point if you want to read more.

So how do you choose your character names? What are they intended to tell the reader? And how important do you think it is to get just the right name?



3 responses »

  1. I think you could do some more interesting analysis of these results. The question of whether the majority of the respondents were “right” about a name is as much influenced by the author’s thoughts as the respondents’.
    A more objective measure of whether names carry meaning might be to consider the clumping of the answers. If the name carries no meaning, you might expect 33% of the responses to be for each of the (non “No pref”) choices, and a result like that would indicate a weak relationship between the name and any particular outcome. A result where 90% of the respondents said “bad guy” would be a strong indication, regardless of whether you’d actually made that character a bad guy or not (you might sit in the other 10%.)
    You can formally present the strength of this indicated relationship by calculating the p-value (the probability of having reached that outcome assuming that the preferences were actually randomly distributed – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P-value ) – or, of course, if you were happy to publish the Good/Bad/Ugly votes for each name, one of your science friends will probably be happy to calculate it for you.

    • Stay awesome, Dr. Nick. 🙂

      I’m entirely happy to share that data. In fact, here it is:

      Good Bad Either Other
      Stalwart Adler 39 7 8 5
      Michel Augustin 22 9 24 4
      Tatiana Danann 23 16 14 6
      Ingrid Hummel 20 11 24 5
      Lydia Kaisermann 16 17 23 4
      Tadeus Lehrer 14 28 12 6
      Frederick Martin 22 7 27 4
      Dex Rothstein 17 23 13 6
      Vigor Solberg 6 38 13 2
      Armand Tourville 17 17 20 5
      Sincerity Werner 32 8 12 8

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