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Memorable but Distracting Names in Fiction

April 6, 2014
Nobody snickered at the name/title Moby Dick when the novel was originally published.

Nobody snickered at the name/title Moby Dick when the novel was originally published.

Sometimes names can be distracting. Harry Baals is a distracting name. Dick Butkus is a distracting name. I think a distracting name in real life can be funny because I can’t believe that parents would really name their kid that. But distracting names in fiction are a different matter to me.

The first distracting fictional name that I can recall was Pussy Galore from Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger (which also could be seen as a distracting book title). I probably saw Goldfinger the movie before I read Goldfinger the novel, but either way, I was a teenager and thought Pussy Galore was a great name. Now I’m a bit older, and I look at that name and think… why? If I walked into my office and started talking about Pussy Galore, I’d probably get fired. When it comes to these issues, the company that I work for doesn’t care about context.

I recently stopped reading a novel (The Accident by Chris Pavonne) partly because a character has a really distracting name, Chris Wolfe. At first glance, nothing seemed wrong with the name Chris Wolfe until I realized that the fictional Chris Wolfe started a fictional right-wing cable news network in the 1990s. Gee, I wonder what news network this Chris WOLFE is supposed to represent. Maybe naming a character who ran a cable news network Chris WOLFE would have been clever ten years ago, but now it’s kind of old and distracting.

If an author wants to bash Wolfe… err… Fox News, then bash Fox News. It’s fun to bash Fox News, but don’t bash the readers over the head that it’s Fox News getting bashed when it’s already obvious. Chris WOLFE was a distracting name for this character. It was almost enough to make me stop reading the book, not that I care anything for any cable news networks, but it was a stupidly distracting name to give a character. At least the author didn’t name the character Murdock Rupert.  I eventually stopped reading The Accident because it was written in present-tense, and I kept noticing it was written in present-tense.  That was even more distracting, but the name Chris Wolfe didn’t help.

I’ve never seen an author write a book with a fictional character named Ennis M. Beasley who ran a politically biased cable news channel. I might read a book with a fictional character named Ennis M. Beasley if the character starts a fictional cable news network (as long as it’s not written in the present-tense).

Ironic fictional names bother me sometimes too. A little over ten years ago there was a movie called Insomnia where Al Pacino played a guy named Will Dormir. Get it? Dormir means sleep in Spanish or French  (or both). An insomniac named Will Dormir, some movie critics thought it was deep and/or ironic. I thought it was distracting and unnecessary. Yeah, I still remember Will Dormir’s name over 10 years later, but I remember it for the wrong reasons, and I only saw the movie once, and I told a bunch of people NOT to see it because of the distracting name (I don’t think they paid attention to me), so just because I’m writing about it doesn’t mean it worked. I’m writing about it because it didn’t work with me. The ironic name is rarely clever, and it’s not really ironic if it’s done on purpose. It’s just distracting. On the other hand, Al Pacino is a cool name because it’s just a name (I think).

I know that a lot of people disagree with me about this. Literature is filled with ironic names. And I don’t like them. Part of it is me getting older. When I was younger, I was ambivalent. I wasn’t impressed if an author named a depressed character Sonny, but I didn’t care enough to think about it. To me, a name is a name.

Ironic names are great in real life. There’s an obnoxious football player who everybody hates named Ritchie Incognito. Everybody has hated him since his freshman year in college. Even his teammates (especially the ones who practiced against him) hated him. When he made it in the NFL, everybody hated him even worse. I think it’s funny that an infamous universally-hated athlete is named Incognito. It’s funny when that kind of irony happens in real life. If an author does it to a character, then it becomes forced. And it’s distracting.

The most famous distracting name in literature is Moby Dick. Say “Moby Dick” in front of a group of people, and somebody is going to laugh. Why would Hermann Melville give a distracting name to a fictional whale in a serious book? How can anybody concentrate on theme and symbolism when there are so many Moby Dick jokes to be made? Well, back in the mid-1800s, Dick didn’t mean dick. Dick was just a common male name that didn’t mean anything. Melville was giving the whale a common men’s name. It wasn’t until the 20th century (I don’t know the precise year) when Dick started to mean what it means now. In other words, Moby Dick became a classic well before people started snickering at the title. Maybe one day, the word “dick” will stop meaning what it does, and serious literary types will be able to say Moby Dick without somebody like me snickering. But that probably won’t happen in my lifetime.

I could be wrong about everything. Should writers give their characters ironic names? Was Chris Wolfe a clever name? Was I overreacting to Chris Wolfe?  What ironic fictional names do you think are clever? Should I write a serial about a left-wing journalist named Ennis M. Beasley? And should publishers change Moby Dick to Moby Bob?


If you look up Harry Baals , check out his wife’s name. I hope it’s true.  Nobody should ever try to make that up.

  1. Ever check out Dave’s Blog of Funny Names? Dave and his staff go all the way with it. it’s terrific.

    • Yes, I go there every once in a while. That might have even been where I first read about Harry Baals, but I don’t know for sure. Is it ironic that a blog about funny names is run by a guy named Dave, or is that intentional?

  2. Really liked your post, and completely agree – character names matter, and distracting ones can ruin one’s reading experience. I remember dropping Lolita because of the main character’s name (Humbert Humbert? Come on!). Incidentally: Dormir means “to sleep” in French, Spanish and Portuguese. It might have sounded ironic, but it’s hardly clever, no?

  3. Moby Dick is especially bad since the author talks at length about sperm, as in the stuff from the sperm whales.

    There is a character in Oliver Twist named Master Bates, which seems a bit childish of Dickens, especially considering he is the only person called “Master” anything and he constantly calls him that.

    • Maybe Master Bates was unintentional on Dickens’s part, but you never know. Richard Pryor used the name in a really stupid movie, and even then I knew it was stupid (both the movie and the name).

      • I was going to mention the Richard Pryor movie but you beat me to the punch. I remember watching the movie with my mom and aunt (who was a nun). She did not quite understand the reference and my mom tried to explain it to her (my mother was also a nun but had left the convent years before, obviously, and was maybe a bit more worldly) but my aunt did not quite get it. It was awkward. That was distracting.

  4. Trails and Ultras permalink

    It’s this sort of thing in books that makes me think ‘stop trying to be clever.’ Then I keep reading the name and every time I think ‘there you are, being clever again’. It gets to the point where I start to dislike the person I’ve become (i.e. an uptight and hypercritical maiden aunt) and I have to stop reading.

    • Ha ha! If you have become “an uptight and hypercritical maiden aunt” over stuff like this, you’re not the only one, except I’ve become a grumpy and hypercritical (almost) old man. I even say stuff like “Get off my lawn!!!”

  5. A character named Peter Robe, in a science fiction novel with a plot that’s based on the French Revolution (although the reader isn’t supposed to notice that). *rolls eyes*

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