What’s In A Name?

For most writers, naming a character is like naming one’s own child.  

Names are important.  They are carefully considered for their meaning, spelling, and personal preference, as well as the general “feeling” they will give to the reader, especially for main characters.  A well written story can make a character name as famous as any person.  For example, if someone (usually a tween-aged girl) walks around wearing a shirt with the words “Team Edward” scrawled across it, most people don’t have to ask who Edward is.

A good name is recognizable to all, even if you’ve never read the book.

Scarlett O’Hara.  Mr. Darcy.  Harry Potter.  Heathcliff.  Sherlock Holmes.  Holden Caufield.  Atticus Finch.  Jacob Black.  Eliza Doolittle.

But have you ever read a story where the name did not fit the character?  Or perhaps something about the name took you out of the story a bit?

This happened to me with the first episode of my favorite TV show, The Vampire Diaries.  When introduced to the Salvatore brothers, I was a little disappointed with the names.  Stefan is not my idea of a very ‘masculine’ name, but that aside, the history nerd in me took over as their backstory unfolded.  Plantation owners in Virginia of Italian decent?  The odds of that are next to nil.  Every time it’s mentioned on the show, it really, really bothers me.  On the other hand, Katerina Petrova is a perfect name for Katherine’s backstory.
**Disclaimer- I have not read any of the books in this series because I love the show so much.  I don’t want to know what’s going to happen.

Another instance when this happened to me was when I began reading the most famous book series in the world- Harry Potter.  When first introduced to the characters, the one name that stuck out to me immediately was Ron Weasley. 

I expected the Weasley family to be sneaky, scavenging, underhanded weasel-like people, of course. But they are completely the opposite of that, providing Harry with the only stable family he’s ever known, which threw me a bit.  Of course I eventually got used to it, but I still don’t like the name choice.  It would have been better for Pettigrew to have been Ron’s last name (and his family) and let Peter Weasley be the one to eventually betray Harry’s parents. 

But that would have been obvious.  And that leads me to my next point.

I don’t like obvious names.

When I’m reading a story and the character’s names actually do fit their personality, it makes me roll my eyes.  For example, I was reading a novel not too long ago where the hero’s last name was Knight.

Knight, White, Truly, Love, Mary, Shepherd, initials J.C., Gabriel– examples of names that elude to the character being squeaky-clean and heroic.

It goes the other way, too.  Naming a character Cain or Lucifer when he’s a bad guy is kinda overkill.

Much of this boils down to personal preference.  For example, I don’t love any of the names of the main characters in the Twilight Saga.  (I’m now dodging the rocks, pencils, computer mice, and other objects that some of you are launching toward me.)

I love love love the last name Cullen.  Great choice, Steph.  Oh, and the fact that Hale is also a surname in the book makes me happy.  But again, I had issue with other name choices.  Edward?  I know she was trying to be period correct to the turn of the century, but it’s not my favorite.  Jacob?  Yep, this one is okay.  Bella?  Bella means beautiful.  The beauty of the name made me long for a character of grace and charm…and we all know that one of Bella’s main issues is that she’s a giant klutz.  But, hey, this is my preference against the author’s.  And as for the rest of the Cullen family, the only name I actually really liked because it “fit” the character was Alice.

But did my so-so feelings about the names in the story dissuade me from reading (more like devouring) the books?  Not at all.  The story hooked me so well that the names no longer mattered to me.  Eddie and Jake made their way into my heart the same as millions of other readers.

One name that sticks with me is another from J.K. Rowling- Mathilda Hopkirk.  I just like the way it rolls off the tongue.

When I’m naming my characters I start with names I like.  Sometimes I research the background of the name–this is how I discovered that Molly and Mary both mean “bitter.”  I definitely consider the spelling of the name.  It has to be easy for the reader to pronounce (right, J.K. Rowling?) and I think the spelling lends itself to character traits.

For example, if a character’s name is Ashleigh, a reader might find the young woman to be more delicate or soft than if her name is Ashli or Ashlee.  Or if his name is Max, his ethnicity can change if it becomes Maks.

As a teacher, I’ve had lists and lists of student names to use as reference for naming characters.  In my mind, some of the names are synonymous with negative behavior, while others bring to mind the cute, cheerleader type, and yet others the studious scholar.  These frames of reference help quite a lot in choosing names for characters.

A character’s name in a story, just like with people we know in real life, needs to be remembered.

Tips for naming:

It’s important to make the name unique and somewhat catchy, all while maintaining the essence of the character’s personality and making sure to be true to the story.  For example, a wealthy aristocrat businessman from New York City should not be named Bubba or Skeeter, as an intelligent nuclear physicist probably shouldn’t be named Fifi or Duffy.

Keep it consistent.  Don’t have too many nicknames for your characters throughout the story.  Have your characters refer to each other consistently so that the reader is not confused.

When in doubt, keep it simple.

Even if your novel is rather fantastical, when all of your names are creative and unique, readers can find it difficult to remember and differentiate between them all.  (Harry Potter is a good example again here- some of the names in the novels are creative & wild, others are normal and somewhat plain.)

Don’t give several characters in your book the same name.  It works to have Kelly A., Kelly B., and Kelly C. in a kindergarten class, but not in a novel.

Also, if the name is too off the wall, not historically appropriate, or just plain doesn’t make sense (Abcde will not be a name featured in any of my novels), it takes the reader right out of the story and doesn’t allow them to connect with your character.  So don’t look for any of the characters in my novel that deals with Islam to be named Bob.

Speaking of, how would you have liked for Bella to fall in love with Bob Cullen?

Share with me:
What are some of your favorite names, both from books you’ve read and people you’ve known?


Filed under Writing

5 responses to “What’s In A Name?

  1. I love J.K. Rowling's character names…with the exception of the names she gave to the children in the epilogue of the final book. Seriously, Hugo? Minerva McGonagall is a particular favorite :)When I was little, probably six or seven years old, I started reading the American Girl books. My favorite was Kirsten, and I've loved that name ever since–so much so that it's #2 on the list for my future daughters. I tend to like a lot of Celtic and Gaelic names — Morgan, Callum, Liam 🙂 — but after a little girl I had in daycare, I fell in love with the name Catalina (probably because the child was so precious.)My favorite literary name that I could never see using on a real person has to be Aravis, from C.S. Lewis's The Horse and His Boy. I have to end this comment now, because I love names and I would talk forever about them.

  2. Naming my children – er, characters! – is always a time-consuming and lengthy process for me. A lot depends on a name, though how we can combat the opinion of other people is often tricky. There are a lot of names that have, through our media, taken on distinct flavors, whether they are actually "good" names or not. You have to be careful using those, as you mentioned. Names that come with baggage can easily make or break a story.I always liked the names Tolkien used for the Hobbits. There is so much personality in names like Hamfast Gamgee, Hilda Bracegirdle, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, Meriadoc Brandybuck…The names Tad Williams uses in his books always seem perfect to me: Simon, Morgenes, Isgrimnur, Esias and Josua, Jiriki… Applecore! (Two different books!)Robin, of course, is a great name. Hehe! When I was very little my grandmother, who was from eastern Europe and spoke with an accent, used to call me "Robin the Hood." It wasn't until I was about ten years old that I met and fell in love with the story of Robin Hood.Yes, names are wonderful things…

  3. About a year or so ago I developed my theory on complimentary vs. contrasting names. Weasly is a great example of a contrasting name. We get the instant impression of negativity, which I think creates a conflict in our mind that has us pay more attention to those characters and notice they aren't weasly at all (well, Percy is). If his name were Pettigrew, I think it gave great texture. At the same time, Harry is complimentary to me, a steady, stable name that creates and almost subconscious expectation of him. I find the whole naming process fascinating and really enjoyed your post. Well said.

  4. I heart your pictures!! Heart, heart, heart!Funny – I'm not history buff, so I never even questioned the Italian plantation owners. Ha! And I like those names. Stefan and Damon. Maybe because I like those boys. :)I have a character in my novel named Davis Knight. I could resist giving him that last name. 🙂

  5. Lyns- I am 100% with you on the names JK gave the kids in the epilogue. I understood them, but– Blech.Robin- thanks for sharing! Some of those names certainly lend themselves to the creative and fantastic, don't they? :)Josi- loved your point of complimentary vs. contrasting names. Perhaps JK did it all on purpose to hook us from the beginning. (Genius, no?)Katie- I'll forgive you the Knight this once, as long as he doesn't constantly appear on horseback as the other Knight character did in the novel I read recently. In it he saved the damsel all right, but it was just too obvious for me!!I love the Salvatores, too, so I'm over the names already, but the history thing REALLY bothers me. I'm a nerd like that.

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