Writerly fact: I am moderately obsessed with names. If I hear one in a movie or TV show that strikes me as beautiful or unusual or otherwise worthwhile, I recite it in my head like a one-item grocery list until I can write it down. I read baby naming websites for fun. I sometimes create new characters simply to have a good excuse to use a name that’s been nagging at me. So when I read this post over at Tracey (with an e!) Neithercott’s blog, I was delightedly prompted into sharing my own thoughts on names — specifically, those of the less typical variety. Why do so many YA authors seem to gravitate towards unusual names?
Some name choices are symbolic. Remus Lupin, a werewolf, is inarguably lupine. Sirius Black is capable of turning into a dog (a black one, naturally); Sirius, astronomically speaking, is a star prominent in the Canis Major constellation. To keep with HP, the fact that Voldemort’s name is unusual goes beyond metaphoric wordplay into even deeper character symbolism. The Artist Formerly Known As Tom Riddle chooses his new name specifically to avoid the commonplace; he is in fact quite blatantly disgusted at the thought of sharing a name with anyone else. He is intent on fashioning himself as peerless, wholly unique, and selects a moniker accordingly.
Speaking of unique, it seems quite probable that a drive to stand out in the crowd is behind some authorial naming choices. No one is going to confuse Scout with another plucky young heroine, for example, or forget which magical creature Aslan is. Ally Condie writes about this struggle for originality — her heroine Cassia was originally named Calla, but so was the MC in another of her publisher’s forthcoming books. One Calla is memorable; two are more easily muddled. One unique Cassia, coming right up! (Her love interests, Xander and Ky, are also unlikely to run into many nomenclature doppelgangers.)
This can become interesting when relatively ordinary names take on literarily iconic status. How long before someone else can write about a Bella or a Harry without everyone’s minds immediately going to their fictional predecessors?
Unlike those two, some characters simply wouldn’t sound right with “regular” names. Would eccentric, fantastical Xenophilius Lovegood make sense as Joe Turner? Could Kristin Cashore’s determined, flame-haired heroine be called anything but Fire?
Many of Suzanne Collins’s characters remind me of Cashore’s naming choices. Both authors have a knack for names that are almost exclusively unusual and very often outright made-up, yet still (for lack of a better word) functional. They make sense in the context of their fictional worlds — not necessarily because of symbolism or relevant character traits, but due to a more nebulous, difficult-to-define feel. Cashore’s Katsa, Po, Faun, Roen, and Bitterblue (my personal favorite) don’t sound anachronistically contemporary, but neither are they alienatingly genre-based like some fantastical mouthfuls I’ve come across. They’re poetic, and exactly the right amount of otherworldly. Collins’s Katniss, Peeta, Cinna, Haymitch, and Finnick are odd, to be sure, but I can’t imagine any other names working as well. They have a bit of bite, a slight discordance or strangeness, that’s perfect for the edgy, violent universe they inhabit.
Do you love bizarre names in YA, or do you find yourself put off by them? What are some of your favorite YA monikers?