Name Theory: Write for Yourself, Edit for Your Readers

For the Character of the Week last Monday I used star names because star names were on my brain. Last week I saw another writer mentioning that she wanted to use star names for her characters. The two she mentioned were Sol and Stella. However, that writer seemed to have given little or no thought to the names beyond their meanings.

Stella literally means star, and it is a pretty name that is in current use and still sounds modern and fresh. However, the story for this character takes place in the future when a name like Stella will probably not be as popular. Also, there is already a literary character with the name in the play A Streetcar Named Desire who is an abused wife (“Stella! Stella for star!”). I think the writer would have been well advised to consider if her readers would make that connection and if it would distract from her character.

Still, Stella is nice, if a bit too literal. I didn’t feel strongly enough to mention the name to the writer.

Sol, on the other hand, is a problem. First, while Sol literally means sun, and the sun is technically a star, many people would not consider Sol a star name (not to mention that to anyone who “gets it” it sounds like you’re trying too hard). Second, this writer intended to use the name Sol for a female character and while the name has had some use as a girls’ name it is much more in use for boys. It has actually charted on the list of popular names as a boys’ name, but not as a girls’ name. But the biggest problem I have with the name Sol for her character is that it doesn’t read as a young girl.

Sol reads as an old man. Specifically, to me, Sol reads like the old Jewish man Eddie Murphy played in Coming to America (technically named the homophone Saul). The only people named Sol I have ever met were old men (some of whom were named Solomon and nicknamed Sol). Period, end of story.

So maybe Sol could work. As a boy in the story. As an acquaintance. As yet another someone with a star-inspired name in a world where star names are popular. But if Sol is the name of a young female protagonist it will only be a stumbling block for the readers.

While I love the advice that you should write your first draft for yourself and for the love of writing, when you work on editing your draft and getting your story prepared for publication and readers you must consider them. Are your names helping your reader to relate to and understand your characters and their society, or are they names like Xyz’kkatljx that the reader will have to stumble over or ignore while slogging through your novel? Do you want your readers to think you have a brilliant understanding of this world you built, or do you want them to think that you wrote an okay story?

Names, along with the other details in your stories, can make the difference between acceptable and exceptional.

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