A few years ago, I took a class in Philosophy of Language that dealt, in part, with names. It did not cover the deeper meaning of names, unfortunately, just the highly theoretical practice of trying to discover how a name meant anything (e.g. what does a name really refer to, according to Russell, Frege, and all those guys).

In fiction of any kind, names may define characters, or speak to some essence the writer wishes to get across. For example, Jean Valjean, the hunted but selfless convict from Les Miserables, has a name referring to the power of God’s grace — which is very fitting for a man whose soul was “bought” by a priest he stole from.

I have long been intrigued by the practice of naming characters according to their essence, and at 14, wrote a short novel featuring, among others, a suave Mala (= bad) and a reptilian Rana (= frog). Since then, I’ve written multiple stories with nameless characters, in an attempt to speak to the universal. One short story revolved around Caleb (= dog) and the opening to the Iliad… a finer reference than calling a creepy guy a frog, and the plot (though it mirrored the reference) in no way depended on the reader “getting it.”

The problem with naming characters according to some greater archetype is that the characters may then disintegrate into mere copies. So it’s best to do this subtly, as an added bonus for the easily-bored consumer. In Inception, for example (soon up for a host of Oscars, including Best Picture), the only really obvious name reference is Ariadne. Possibly Mal, as well, but the pronunciation in the movie sounds more like “Moll” (Although I kept wondering: why is a Frenchwoman named Molly? Is she supposed to be Moll Flanders?). In Inception, the names may actually be deliberate anchors to the “real world,” particularly if, as some have suggested, the whole movie is a commentary on cinematic experience and the ability to suspend logic and lose yourself in the shared dream-like sequences of fiction.