Morris, Mounce, and Morgenstern: How I Name Characters (Part 2)

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Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I hope you’re taking the day off to rest, enjoy good food, and spend time with family and friends. It’s a wonderful holiday that really does tend to get blotted out between Halloween and Christmas (not to mention Black Friday), and it deserves some attention! (Not saying you can’t put up Christmas decor in November or whatever….and as you know, I myself am one of those impious people who listen to Christmas music super early.) But I do believe a holiday focused on giving thanks is worth protecting. Enjoy this Thanksgiving!

Meanwhile, I’m back this week with my second post about How I Name Characters (you can read Part 1 here). Last week I discussed considerations of historical setting, a person’s age, and family associations, and today I’m exploring the meaning and sound of names, along with a few other factors.

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3. Meaning

Only a minority of my character’s names are chosen for what they mean, but I do like fitting a character symbolically to their name when I can.

One of the main characters from my most recent Christmas drama is a perfect example: Christopher Morgenstern. His full name means “Christ-bearing morning star.” In an earlier post, I mentioned The Return of Ben Morgenstern‘s theme of Christ as the Morning Star and Him shining through us. In the play, the Morgenstern family demonstrates what it looks like to carry Christ in our lives, and this theme fits Christopher in a unique way because of his occupation. He’s a mailman, or a “letter carrier” in 1872. And as another character remarks at one point, “He carries letters, and then…there’s something else he carries.” That something else, though never explicitly stated, is Christ.

Sometimes I choose a name not for its etymological meaning, but for meaningful associations. Christmas at The Three Bees is full of examples of this. The main characters, siblings Luke and Bethany, were named for thematic reasons. In the case of this drama, I was drawing primarily from the account in Luke 10 of Jesus at the home of Mary and Martha. Both of my characters in different ways represented Martha, but instead of directly using that name, I used associated names: Luke, obviously, from the name of the gospel, and Bethany from the name of the town in which Mary and Martha lived.

And one more thing while I’m on this topic: sometimes the names I’ve chosen come to mean something as the story progresses, sometimes surprising even me. I don’t always know what a character is really going to be like until I’ve written for a while. Again in Christmas at The Three Bees, this happened with the characters Maria and Dominic. I chose the names mostly for their sound, but as I was writing the play, I started to realize that the character Dominic represented Christ and that Maria was a kind of mother-figure to him. And then it struck me that Dominic comes from the Latin “dominus,” meaning “Lord,” and Maria of course comes from the name Mary.

That was a cool moment.

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4. Sound

Let’s talk about the sound of names. This is one of those things that can be subjective and hard to describe, but I do believe that words are physical things and carry connotations in their sound alone, regardless of their actual meaning or lack thereof.

Take, for example, my villain from The Twelve Months of Christmas, Morris Holland. He’s an over-the-top, cliché villain complete with bumbling henchmen and periodic bouts of evil laughter. But he’s also an American aristocrat born in the mid-1800s. So I named him Morris, trying to pick something historically-appropriate that could also carry a note of villainy in its sound. The syllable “mor-” tends to have an ominous resonance, at least in the ears of English-speakers, because in Latin the word mors means “death” and English has derived multiple words from that root—morbid, mortuary, mortal, remorse, etc. (Hence also we get things like the dark land of Mordor from the language wizard himself, Mr. Tolkien.) So while the name Morris itself doesn’t derive from the Latin root mors at all, its sound can still suggest dark connotations.

Similarly, consider the bitter, self-centered Mr. and Mrs. Mounce from Christmas at The Three Bees. (This name was me trying to be Dickensian.) I don’t know if Mounce is a real surname; I tried to make it up. I wanted it to sound like the people it represented—petty and spiteful. It also conveniently sounds like “mouse” (and another character actually mistakes this for their name when introduced to them).

I should add, in some cases humor plays a large part in the sound of names. Whenever I’m creating a comic character, the name is one of the first things I pin down, and it usually adds to the comedy. The Shakespeare-quoting Professor Wammersley, for instance, from Christmas at The Three Bees, or the quirky lighting designer from The Nova Theater named Perry Finley Otis Perkins. This year, in The Return of Ben Morgenstern, we have the snobbish Southern fashionista Dora Belle Foster, whose name, yes, is mistaken for “Doorbell.”

Or occasionally the humor comes from pairing names—not just first and last (like Tanner Summer, in last week’s post), but the names of two characters. In The Twelve Months of Christmas, for example, the villain’s clumsy sidekicks are named Nicodemus and Bob—and this was entirely so their boss could introduce them as “my esteemed associates, Nicodemus and…Bob.” A satisfying anticlimax.

5. Variety, logistics…and personal taste

We’ve covered the main elements that go into naming characters, but a few other things do sometimes come into play. For instance, I try to keep variety throughout the cast, so that I don’t have too many names with the same first letter or the same number of syllables. (Especially since the audience is hearing each name rather than seeing it, I think making the names sound as distinctive as possible helps the audience keep characters straight.) Sometimes, especially in plays with bigger casts, I literally go down the alphabet brainstorming names that each start with a different letter, just to get myself started in the right direction.

Or in some cases, I try to use as many gender-neutral names as I can—Taylor, Reese, Jordan, and so on. This is to make the characters as flexible as possible, so that regardless of how many guys or gals you have in your drama team you can still fit your cast to my characters. However, there are only so many gender-neutral names! And they all tend to sound very modern as well, so this approach is pretty much limited to plays in a contemporary setting.

And in the end, even after considering all these factors, I get to choose whatever names I like best. Perks of being the author! Ben Morgenstern, for instance, got his last name because of its meaning but his first name just because I liked it, it was historically appropriate, and I wanted the balance of a short first name with his long last name. In fact the name’s actual meaning, “son,” is ironic given the character’s role in the story…. But no spoilers! Or take Charlotte Holland, the heroine of The Twelve Months of Christmas. I love the name Charlotte, and it seemed fitting for a schoolmistress in 1906. The surname Holland I think I’d heard somewhere, it sounded nice, and it hit that perfect balance in my mind between being unique and being easy to say and remember.

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little survey of the naming process. It’s certainly a stage of writing that I love, and thanks for letting me share it with you! If you’ve seen or acted in one of my plays, is there a particular character’s name which you’ve been wondering about? Feel free to ask me in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer how I chose their name!

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