A symbol is a packet of highly compressed meaning. These symbols highlight and communicate different aspects of the characters/story world/plot.
A subcategory of the literary symbol is the ‘character symbol’.
A character’s name is a children’s story is quite often symbolic. Symbolic names are also common in comedy, but are less frequently seen elsewhere, in stories that aim for mimesis (realism). In the real world, after all, people’s personalities are not connected to their names. (And even if your teacher is called Mrs Bellringer, that isn’t useful in a suspenseful crime novel.)
Also known as:
- a label name
- allegorical name
- When the name of a fictional character describes their personality or occupation, it is called an aptronym. Or sometimes aptonym (without the ‘r’)
SYMBOLIC NAMES IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
- Enid Blyton loved label names — think Watzisname, Dame Washalot, Silky and Moonface. from The Magic Faraway Tree series. These names were very literal. Blyton steered clear of ironic symbolism.
- The Seriously Extraordinary Diary Of Pig by Emer Stamp features some farmers called Mr and Mrs Sandal, who happen to be vegetarian. This is a symbolic name for the adult co-reader, as I’m not sure young readers would always know how heavily sandals are associated with vegetarianism — mostly because this was true back in the 1970s, I think.
DO SYMBOLIC NAMES COMPROMISE REALISM?
The middle grade novel A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck is filled with characters with colourful names. Early in the story we meet the Cowgills. The child narrator lampshades the symbolism of the name by writing: “It may have been just a coincidence that a family named Cowgill owned the dairy. I never knew.” This lampshading is necessary because Peck is basically going for nostalgic historical realism. It also leads to some humour.
It works because sometimes a real person does seem to have a symbolic name, in which case it’s comically coincidental. Donald Trump springs to mind. I do know a teacher called Mrs Bellringer.
SYMBOLIC NAMES IN STORIES FOR ADULTS
Stories for adults also feature characters with symbolic names, especially if they are comedies. Will Freeman of About A Boy is one example. Tied down to no one, this man-child really does live under the illusion of free will.