I’ve been thinking a lot about titles, since I’ve been struggling with a title for my forthcoming novel. Titles have a dual role: they are part of the work of art, but they are also an advertisement, a way to attract a reader to pick up a book from a shelf in a bookstore or library, or read the first sentence of a short story.
I’ve taken the time to think through some general categories of titles, and I’ll be posting a complete list. But for now, I’d like to think about one category: Character.
Novels and short stories titled after characters are legion, and go back to the beginnings of the novel. Think of Don Quijote, or La Princesse de Cleve, Emma, or Oliver Twist.
Titles that derive from character can do more than just give the character’s name, of course. They can be a character’s profession, as in the “The Paperhanger,” by William Gay, or “The Caretaker,” by Anthony Doerr.
Or they can be even more intriguing, like “The Prophet from Jupiter,” by Tony Earley. Consider The Book Thief, or The Handmaid’s Tale. Isaac Basheivis Singer seemed to have a talent for this kind of title: “Gimpel the Fool,” “The Spinoza of Market Street,” “The Slaughterer,” or “The Dead Fiddler.” My friend Ann Gelder’s new book Bigfoot and the Baby falls into this category.
A good title can work in more than one way. Even a seemingly simple title like Jane Austen’s Emma is doing some extra work. The title slyly hints at the marriage plot at the center of the book, since the issue will be Emma’s eventual last name. And a title like “The Caretaker” is also doing more work than initially meets the eye. Yes, the main character does eventually work as a caretaker at a summer estate in Oregon. But he is attempting to take care of other things as well.
I discarded my attempts to use a character-based title for my own novel. I began the first draft in first person, concentrating on a single character, but it ended up with four major characters, and so a character-based title just didn’t fit. But they are certainly a very good option to consider. They give readers someone to be curious about right away. And if you can make a title do that, and also do a little more, the title will function both as advertisement, and as part of a complete work of art.