What’s In a Name?

That which we call a character

By any other name smell as sweet?

Juliet may have been trying to soothe her lover’s concerns over their warring families, but I completely disagree with her notion that a name is a meaningless convention. One of the greatest gifts – or curses – a parent can bestow upon their child is their name. The same is true for fictional people.

Sure, Buffy works if you’re a vampire slayer, but would a brain surgeon named Buffy be taken seriously? Or, would Severus Snape be nearly as slimy if J.K. Rowling named him Ben Thomas? Should writers stress over a character’s name, or just pluck something from a baby name book and move on? Maybe both.

When I started my first round of edits for Phoenix years ago, there was something about the main character that really bothered me. She felt directionless, meek, and quite frankly, was not my favorite character in the book.

To remedy this, I “interviewed” her … I also call this “talking to the voices in my head.” During this interview, I asked her what she wanted more than anything in the world.

Her answer: to be loved.

I hopped on BabyNames.com, did a search and found the name Amanda meant “worthy of love.” That was the day Amanda Martin was born. The name also worked perfectly for the alter-ego with her going by her childhood nickname, Mandy.

The other characters in the book came to me pretty easily. Shiloh, a wounded young woman who has dealt with loss her whole life, came fully formed and her name means His Gift. (Maybe she was my gift as she is probably a character I have more in common with than the others). Amanda’s love interest, David’s name means “beloved.” Her criminal ex-boyfriend’s name Josh means “God is salvation.” Um, yeah-no, but I couldn’t find a name that meant “lying thief.” Alex, the SEC agent chasing Amanda, was likely named Alexander by his Greek parents, a name that means “Defender of the People,” and quite fitting for his role in the story.

For the times when names are hard to come by, there’s this great site (thanks Carol!). This random name generator gave me the name of a character in the follow up to Phoenix, Pardon Falls, Eldridge “El” Calchera. The minute that name flashed in front of my eyes the character solidly formed in my mind.

But should we strive for names that fit our characters, or names that will find a place in history? Nabokov’s double named Humbert Humbert is immediately cast in our minds as a creep, and what of his sexually-charged, yet youthful Lolita nickname for his stepdaughter. Are the names what stand out, or the characters?

Is it a literary chicken and the egg? Does a memorable name make for a memorable character, or should the character of Severus Snape stand on his own, even if his name was Ben?

About Kimberly Packard

Kimberly Packard is an award-winning author of women’s fiction. She began visiting her spot on the shelves at libraries and bookstores at a young age, gazing between the Os and the Qs. Kimberly received a degree in journalism from the University of North Texas, and has worked in public relations and communications for nearly 20 years. When she isn’t writing, she can be found rollerblading, doing a poor imitation of yoga or curled up with a book. She resides in North Texas with her husband Colby, Oliver the cat and a 75-pound lap dog named Charlie. Her debut novel, Phoenix, was awarded as Best General Fiction of 2013 by the Texas Association of Authors.
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293 Responses to What’s In a Name?

  1. Sara Flower says:

    I think names can definitely enhance a character’s power. Great post! πŸ™‚

  2. aviatrixkim says:

    I’ve gotten into the habit of naming characters with people in mind whose personalities evoke the character for me. I may rename them later, but when the gruff old mechanic reminds me of a gruff old mechanic in my life, I find he comes into sharper focus. Maybe this is a bat habit, but it works for me.

    • I think we’re all guilty of that. There’s a very minor character in Phoenix that I modeled after an older gentleman from my hometown. They don’t share the same name, but I did give him an Irish name after this gentleman. Thank you for commenting! Cheers!

  3. Ben Thomas?!?! Haha! I love it…

    I have to admit that I have difficulty with the whole chicken-or-egg thing. I want a character to reflect a name, not for the name to determine character. In other words, I feel like a good writer should be able to craft a personality through actions and motivations, with the name becoming “fitting.” But in your examples, you’re absolutely right — Snape and Lolita are practically adjectives that serve to describe the characters and their traits.

    Fascinating post. And now I must look at my own name — which was completely made up by a creative grandfather — and wonder what crosses others’ minds when they see it? Hmmmm…

    • Thanks, Mikalee! (Cool name by the way!) Good point about the name and character – and all he or she embodies – becoming one in the same. Would a Snape by any other name smell as rotten?

      You also bring up an interesting point on name origins. You have a creative grandfather, so maybe how a character comes about a name is as important as the name itself .

      Thank you for commenting!

  4. I think it goes both ways. Sometimes a character has such a strong personality that they could be called Bob Smith and it would not matter. But then there are cases such as Uriah Heep that instantly make you think, “This dude is going to be trouble…”

    When I write, I just let the characters name themselves. Does that make sense? I try out all sorts of names and when I find the right one, it’s almost as if the character jumps off the page at me and says, “That’s the one, Ang!”

    • Oh yeah, Angie, Uriah Heep was another one going through my head – Heap of Trouble. And they do totally name themselves. My character Shiloh totally did that, and I couldn’t imagine her with any other name.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment! Cheers!

  5. nikilee30 says:

    I love how names really make or break characters – I cannot wait to have children and see if they live up to or surpass the name I give them!

    • I couldn’t agree more, Niki! We don’t have kids yet, but I can’t imagine anything more fun and fret-worthy. Thank you for stopping by!

      • Don’t fret too much! I spent 9 months deciding on my daughter’s name (Lilli) only to have her turn out to be a very feisty tomboy who at the age of 5 declared that it was her body, and her mind, and that she would rather be called Ty, thank you very much! (Lilli being to ‘girly’) And Ty she has remained for the last 10 years. I must admit, it suits her very well. Great post.

  6. A name definitely helps visualize and remember a certain character, of even make us like or dislike it. Severus Snape is an excellent example.

  7. There’s nothing innately wrong with memorable names, but some people go overboard with “meaningful names” and try to use monikers to substitute for characterization. That’s pretty common in science fiction and fantasy (where characters are expected to have unusual names) and, increasingly, YA fiction of any genre.

  8. jumeirajames says:

    Dickens was a past master at naming people to suit their character – Uriah Heep for example.

    Yes, it really really matters a lot what characters are called.

  9. I always found the name ‘Severus Snape’ mysterious and cold. I think it definitely adds to the character!

    • I know! I would love to ask J.K. Rowling how that name came to her – did she have to really think on it or did it pop into her head. Actually, I bet there’s something out there about it.

      Thank you for stopping by!

  10. I think names are so important. A few years ago I wrote a very symbolic story that required the use of names with specific meanings, and since then I’ve realized how important they are. They do, in fact, cement the character πŸ™‚ Thanks for the post!

  11. euphoranyc says:

    I feel that we get used to the name as we get to know the character. It occurs simultaneously. Therefore, if he had never known that Severus Snape was the character’s name, then Ben Thomas would be the name everyone would know and love. In my opinion, I doubt people would complain saying that Ben Thomas is a terrible name for such a character because they wouldn’t know otherwise. Great post. Thought provoking πŸ™‚

  12. Jane says:

    I agree that names are oh so important to characters, and at times it’s a difficult process. I like the solution you came up with and will have to give it a try.

  13. I try to put as much thought as possible in my character’s names in order to draw out the qualities I want to emphasize most. So going with Severus Snape is a pretty good idea on the part of J.K. Rowling. Oh, and speaking of names, in a short story I published recently, my character’s name means “apologies” or “forgiveness” in Arabic, something I did not realize at the time I was writing it and which I did not find out until after the story came out. Let me tell you, the name works with the character.

  14. Melanie says:

    I believe in the importance of character name choices. It’s just as important as every other word we choose when writing. I’ve been influenced by Flannery O’Conner and her devotion to charactonyms. “Good Country People” wouldn’t have had the same impact if the vilan wasn’t a Bible salesman named Manley Pointer.

  15. I’ve used a similar method to find names for characters. I usually use either a name with a specific meaning for the character, or an anagram. If I wanted a good name for a female villain I could use Ilea Vim as an anagram for I am evil.

  16. madhaus7 says:

    Picking character names used to come so easily to me. Nowadays I find it is something that legitimately holds me up when trying to begin a story or outline a plot. If you refer to the protagonist as “LEAD” enough times, it becomes emotionless. A name is very key for me to creatively get going.

  17. atique007 says:

    In real life parents or grandparents whoever take the responsibility to name a kid consider how the baby appear to them as a baby without knowing their future; but in the world of literature the writer as the creator of a character name it considering how it appear in their plot construction knowing everything what their characters will be made to do. This is why it does matter in naming a character for a novel and Shakespeare never meant it for the novelists struggling with their characters naming. What he meant is for we people living in the real world where a man may make his name a history not his name that has anything to do with making him great.

    • Very true … and I do admit to taking a bit of poetic license, but I didn’t think Billy would mind. πŸ™‚ And, there is a point to that. A kid named Damien may be the sweetest thing ever, but if you watched the Omen you may think otherwise.

      Thank you for taking time to comment!

  18. Funny how when you write with a real life person in mind, no name seems to fit except him or her’s. Obviously, one cannot discount location and time period. What’s popular in Russia is nonexistent in Rome, just as a name popular in the U.S.A. in 2012 may be an afterthought in 1860. In answer to your question, YES, names count, and can trigger a reader’s preconceived image on how that character develops, whether consciously or unconsciously. Great thought-provoking post; what did you name it, again?

  19. Peter Monaco says:

    I obsess over names, even names for video game characters. I think a name must “fit”. I don’t care how villianous you make your character out to be, if you call him Moofy the Poofy, it will rip you away from the story every time you read it.

  20. I loved this post! πŸ™‚ I do think that the names of characters are very important. There have been many times that I would put a book down because of a character’s name. Also, I think that it only adds to the depth of the novel when a character’s name reflects what kind of person they are. I always names my characters in ways that sounds really catchy, but also have a deeper meaning to the story. Great, great post! I’m going to have to check out the rest of your blog!

  21. Lu says:

    Yes, so very true. Growing up with a name that I hated, I know the full effects of how powerful a name is. Great post!

    • Thank you, Lu! You bring up a great character motivation – what happens if a character doesn’t like his or her name. How do they grow into it or come to terms with it. I appreciate your comment!

  22. Kaaliyaadan says:

    True. The name projects the character

  23. Delana says:

    Nice post! You could have used the name Jacob instead of Josh, since Jacob was the “heel-snatcher” who tricked his father into giving him Esau’s blessing. I agree with you about the importance of names. In my book Nine Year Pregnancy about the nearly decade-long journey to adopting our daughter, I talk about the name we gave her. Her name is Jade, which is a precious stone in Thailand (the country of her origin). But more important than even the precious stone, Ja is the first two letters in my husband’s name (James) and de the first two from my name.

    • Doggone Delana! Where were you a couple of years ago. πŸ˜‰ Oh well, next time. Great story about Jade’s name and how it’s both a precious stone and the united name of her parents. Thank you for taking time to comment. Happy Writing!

  24. It’s tough to imagine Snape named anything else, but I also think in the hands of the right writer Ben Thomas could still be a pretty tough customer. I would agree that names are super important although some writers claim to be random about it. One of my favorites, Alfred Bester, claimed to have gotten character names at random from the phonebook. Still, I’d guess that if he landed on something that didn’t fit, he would have moved on to another pick.

  25. L. Palmer says:

    I am a fan of a random name generator. A name is like a book cover, we really shouldn’t judge someone by it, but we still do. The Hunger Games would not be as successful if Katniss Everdeen was named Sue Ann Bentley. In my own current project, the main male character was originally named Mason Barnaby, and was meant to be a dork. When I decided I needed him to be more manly, I changed his name to Ben Tucker, and added more cowboy-esque, masculine traits. Changing the name changed the entire identity and personality of the character, and opened up all new possibilities.

    • I totally had a guy in a cowboy hat in my head the minute I read Ben Tucker, before I got to “cowboy-esque” — so see! But you know, our names are sorta like our book covers. Poor Bertha was destined to be a nerd. πŸ™‚

  26. Matt_S_Law says:

    A name is important because it creates the “first impression” in literature, just as someone’s appearance or mood the first time we meet them in person creates our first impression of them. Over time a character can evolve and change–or let their true character come out–to rise above their name or fall short of it’s prominence. A radical shift in a character’s nature can be emphasized by them changing their name (it worked for Saul and Abram in the bible).

  27. Really great post! I have been doing similiar research on names while I was working on my script. Really cool!
    Scarlett

  28. elarajane says:

    i think many people do not like the name we are called, and little thought given when a baby is named. My husband also grew up with a name he hated., :-). love the post.

  29. I think long and hard before settling on a name for a character. I like to give them names fitting of their character or, if I’m employing a bit of intertextuality, give them a name from a piece of well-known literature.

    I also think if you hate the name of a character, it’s harder to like them – an impossible task for an author given that people have very different tastes in names. I read a book recently about two women called Maud and Barbara. It felt like I was reading about two old women from the north of England wearing home-knit hats and big overcoats; not the two chic thirty something Europeans I was actually reading about! πŸ™‚

    • Thanks, Hannah! So for Maud and Barbara, was that a historical fiction? Because if it was during the 20s, for example, then they would be chic thirty-somethings. I guess that’s a pitfall for writing anything tied to a period of time – we could immediately think of our grandparents now versus them then.

      Thank you for commenting! Happy Writing!

  30. jenami says:

    Sounds mean something when they are interpreted by the human brain. Advertisers have known this for years (there’s a reason why brand names for snack foods “sound” crunchy.) I absolutely agree with your thoughts – names can make or break a character.

  31. Reblogged this on Live On Purpose and commented:
    Our name is like an ingredient in the make up of our life. Our names have great significance even if we know it or not. Depending on your name, some people actually live up to your name. What you are called is truly powerful, their is great power in words. Therefore find out the meaning of your name and hopeufully its worthy of you.

  32. I have been struggling with the name of my main character for months. I liked the name when I made her up, but now I remember someone I used to work with who had the same name and now I can’t get it out of my head. Anyway, I always wished I could change my own name. My name, “Maria” has always led to people singing to me. Or asking me if I like pasta. Names are sooooo important! Great post.

    • Oh the worst is when you come up with a perfect name and it reminds you of that B—- from 8th grade. So, since that name is still in your head, maybe ask her why … could be something that she shares with your former co-worker. Or maybe she just wants that name no matter what. Happy Writing!

  33. Great post! Yes, names are powerful, as I discovered when I had to rename a character in my WIP. The name I initially chose, although a real historical person, did not fit the timeline of my book, nor what happened to the character, so I had to change the name. Since most of the main characters are Native American, it wasn’t very easy sticking with the historical time frame and finding names specific to time, place, and tribe.

    • Thanks, Ruth! I think on the random name generator that I linked to there is a way to specify period during which the story takes place. If not there, I know I saw something somewhere. I’ll dig around and if I can find will post it for you.

      Thank you for commenting. Happy Writing!

  34. musingmummy says:

    A name is a symbol of the character and encapslates his or her beingnss, so yes, it is important. πŸ™‚

  35. Have you ever asked told someone that you look like a “(insert name)”? There is an idea that certain names go with people. I think that names are intertwined with people in the past who have impacted us. An Emma, to me, is a lighthearted person. To another person it might mean someone is mean. I think you achieve success in your writing when someone says a name that you wrote about and it creates a connection with a person. With your writing, that is very possible. Definitely going to look at the rest of your blog.

    • Oh YES! I have been told so many times that I look like an Amy. So much that I mentioned it to my parents, they looked at me and said, “Yeah, maybe we should have named you Amy.”

      Thanks so much for taking time to comment and visit my blog! I really appreciate it!

  36. kcbaylor says:

    I generally come up with my character’s name by freestyle writing first. I simply write the first chapter and allow my characters to tell me who they are first. Then I will modify the name if it doesn’t agree with who my character is. Great read

  37. mirrormon says:

    I find it a chicken and egg problem myself… whenever we hear of a name, the association comes from the past acquaintances or history…i think the character of a person gives that name an impact that is followed through… and ofcourse everyone holds a different perception of a particular name…
    but then on the contrary there is this whole institution out there of nameology and numerology…experts of these studies suggest names for new borns… and also suggest changes in the names of grown ups suffering from some kind of distress claiming that situation would improve by that alteration….. not just that, if you tell them a name of a person, they tell you the exact traits of them, which are quite accurate, personally speaking..
    anyway good post πŸ™‚

  38. Whether writing a character into a story, or really naming your kids, names do matter. I just finished a series of posts on the names of God, and found so many interesting things in those names. Names do matter. πŸ™‚

  39. I think things are what they are named because of what they are. You are what you are and that makes a name necessary. The trouble is, we name children before we know what they are and then it is all backwards.

  40. lornamurphy says:

    Really interesting post! There’s lots of psychology research which suggests that our real-life names play an important part in who we become. Partly because it influences our self-concept, and partly because it influences other people’s concept of us (which in turn influences how they treat and speak to us, what they expect of us, etc.). All of this can add to our character as we grow up. Our name is integral to our identity – so it makes absolute sense that we pay special attention to the name we give our fictional characters, and that a character should be able to ‘grow’ out from a memorable name as we do in reality.

    • Thank you so much, Lorna! You are so right – since we are named at birth, we grow into our names. So, would I be a different person if my name were Ashley, or Beatrice? Maybe, maybe not. It’s so hard to tell since I’ve only walked in my skin as Kim. But you know, that would be an interesting question for an actor … how much does that character’s name influence how you play them?

  41. jademwong says:

    I can never look at the name Ben Thomas the same again lol! Wonderful post, and it really makes me sit here and think about this literary chicken and egg conundrum. Personally, I’ve always felt the names carried great power, but it’s up to the character to unleash the power. So I guess, for me, the name and the character are like two halves of a whole.

  42. enneyk says:

    Only on a few occassions have names been prophesies. The other cases they are just relevant parental impositions…

  43. Ms P says:

    Great post and great ideas.

    I usually wrap my interest around the character. The name of the character becomes important as multiple characters are introduced and then I find the name starting to have meaning. I have to agree with you on the fact that some names just aren’t credible with certain characters, as in your “Buffy” example above. Making this type of naming mistake would tend to devalue the author, IMHO.

    • Thank you so much! You know what would be interesting, a Dr. Buffy who is constantly fighting stereotypes. But it would have to be part of the story and something that she struggles again.

      I appreciate you taking time to comment! Happy Writing!

  44. What a great post! I’ve been meaning to write a similar post for a long time now! Glad someone did!

  45. Great post. Congrats on getting on the front page.
    I’ll offer a dissenting opinion, though, and say that I don’t like it when a character’s name reveals too much. In real life, we’ve all met jerks with lovely names and beautiful, kind people with unfortunately slimy names–and I think art should reflect this. Plus, if you let a character’s name define them too rigidly, you risk losing the dynamics of characterization an interesting story needs, typifying the character for the reader the first time you introduce them. If all good people have good sounding names and bad people have bad sounding names, how can a good person fall from grace or a bad person redeem themselves (without a lot of legal paperwork to change their name)?
    Snape is a great example, because we are guessing throughout the whole series whether he is ultimately a good guy or a bad guy. His name acts as another fun piece of evidence we wonder and worry over, but in the end, his actions are what matter–for his character and the story.

    • Nicely put, yes I think I agree. While there is a lot that can be inferred in a name, ultimately it is people’s and character’s actions that define them. For my part, I think Snape would have been just as compelling were he called Ben – he just might be a slightly different character.

    • Thanks, Evan! It’s pretty cool and my phone has been blowing up with comments all day – not complaining. πŸ™‚

      Very well put, and you’re right, he had probably the most character growth in the series (maybe even more so than Harry …). It’s another judging a book moment.

  46. Whoah, you should read babynamewizard. I think you’d love it and get totally lost in all the name info that’s available.

  47. marymtf says:

    There is a football commentator in Melbourne called Tiffany Cherry. Also there is Tiffany Aching, a trainee witch in Terry Pratchett’s ‘The Wee Free Men’ books. But then only Terrry Pratchett can pull stuff like that off.

    • Tiffany Cherry … I’m imagining a sweet Southern girl in pigtails and a red gingham shirt tied up. Then again, I’m American, so that’s my frame of reference. Which also brings a point with names … how the reader will interpret them. Thank you for commenting!

  48. blogbyday says:

    I recently wrote a short story that featured a gay protagonist and I named him Chris; same name as my husband’s best friend. What was I thinking?

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  50. klyse3 says:

    Names definitely enhance! I love the fact that authors sometimes have a far deeper meaning for the names than we readers ever realize. It’s a fun game trying to figure out why the author chose that name.

  51. maggiemoo414 says:

    I think it works both ways…sometimes the character comes from the name and sometimes the name comes from the character. Really great post!

    • Thank you so much, Maggie! You know, I’ll take good characters any way I can get them. Walking out of my mind fully formed and through a little extra work.

      Thank you for taking time to comment!

  52. Coletta says:

    Wow, what a great post! I also believe it is fascinating how children tend to grow into adults and grow into the meaning of their names. The amazing part is how this happens without parents thinking so deeply of this when naming children.

  53. I couldn’t agree more. Names are hugely important when character building. And in real life, if you name your child Candy, you should not be surprised if she is a stripper.

  54. When I choose a name, I want it to take shape. I like for my name to flesh out the character, as if I could call the name and my character might reply. In every way, the name must fit your character and it must seem like someone who could actually exist. If your character is a soft-spoken librarian, Xena might not flesh that character out. Most people would think of someone bold, someone like, well, a warrior princess. I think before choosing a name, you must first know who you want to reply, once you know that, you can choose a name with which that character would actually respond. Thought-provoking! Great post, thanks for sharing.

  55. rodalena says:

    Totally agree. What if King David was named “Harvey”? Or if Scout Finch was named Jennifer? That would just be wrong. Names matter, no matter what Tyler Durden says. Great post!

  56. hfsdances says:

    I totally agree! The way that a name sounds is so important to the way that characters appear to the readers.

  57. Even if I don’t find my name that nice, but I was born, baptized, and known as such; thus, I have to be proud of my name. I AM proud of it!

    Great post! πŸ™‚

  58. Emma McCoy says:

    Great post! I’ve recently struggled with naming characters so this was very helpful.

  59. Names really matter, just look at the examples in the Bible. Genesis 35:10 says, God said to him, “Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be called Jacob; your name will be Israel.” So he named him Israel.

    Congrats on the Freshly Pressed.

    Please check out our family blog: http://www.Cop-A-Squat.com

  60. Someone2442 says:

    Being a wanna be writer, I have to admit that I cannot create a character without picking out the perfect name for them. Usually, I have an idea of what I want the character to look like or what I want them to do. That being said, to a certain extent, I do believe that a character also needs to be able to stand on it’s own. You can’t have a character with a memorable name without a memorable personality. That’s my stance, at least

    • First off, the minute you start writing, you are no longer a wanna-be writer – you are a writer. IMHO that is. πŸ™‚

      You’re right, we can’t rely on good names along to make memorable characters. It’s simply their outer package.

      Thank you for commenting!

  61. Pingback: The Names Coincidence « Rami Ungar The Writer

  62. ashanam says:

    Severus Snape would not stand on his own without the name. He is a caricature and not a well-rounded character. However, we do have certain associations with certain names–the writer does, even if no one else does–and if you don’t name your characters names that evoke their characters to you, you won’t be able to write convincingly about them. So, an evil Ben would never work for me. I’ve only know nice Bens. But it might work for you.

  63. Great thought-provoking post! I think Snape needs his name to be so slimy and snakelike. I love the interview idea too!

    • Thank you so much! So did little Severus hate his name and grow bitter? I was a little nervous about showing my crazy and talking about the interviewing. But I figure that I’m a writer, I’m already crazy. πŸ˜‰

  64. Sweetchars says:

    Ya well…I am totally agree with you on this…naming system. Our name does show our characters and while writing a story or a novel..of course a writer gives an idea of his character while naming it. Liked it. πŸ™‚

  65. 78sense says:

    Giving a name is important whether its an object or a person, You see the name empowers it giving a much greater quailty.

  66. ptiyh says:

    I think it goes both ways. Depend on the character. No, Snape wouldn’t work as a Ben. But Lolita, that name evokes forbidden fruit the way it rolls of the tongue…sensual, perky. Yes, we now associate the name with those qualities because of the character in Nabakov’s book, but independent of that, the syllables ooze sex and candy. Probably one of the most aptly named characters of all time. I always loved Holden Caulfield, as well. Holden, like beholden. Great post, thanks!

    • So you bring up an interesting point – does a major literary character change someone’s perception of a name? Prior to Nabakov’s book, did the name Lolita have such a sensual connotation? Maybe …

      Thank you for taking time to comment!

  67. Great post! As I see it, naming characters-to-character (as it were) is a great literary device – think Norman Hunter, whose Professor Branestawm and his friend Colonel Dedshott just leap out at you at once from their names alone. Rowling was a master at it. The real world, of course, doesn’t usually co-operate, unless the person literally makes their name. I am thinking about Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili in particular. Stalin was so much – well, steely. But as a literary device those alliterative and onomatopaeic names really work for me. Severus Snape just wouldn’t have been the same if he was called Ben.

    Oh – I can never get Alan Rickman’s voice out of my head when I think of Snape. But that is a good thing.

    • Thank you, Matthew! And using last names that are also verbs – like Hunter – make an easy, but also great literary device. You’re right, in literature we have a little more control over if the name matches the person it belongs with.

      I appreciate your comment!

  68. allaron says:

    Its a bit of a cunundrum isnt it. Every author is different and in a story you love you could not imagine another name for your favorite characters. How ever in a rough draft you can still tweak the names to find the best fit. A great author no matter the methods should make you care about what happens to the characters and fall in love with them or hate them.

    • It is! And I think every character is a little different. Some come with their names fitting them perfectly and others need a little coaxing. That’s the beauty of the creative process … it’s creative, and rarely the same day in and day out.

      Thank you for commenting!

  69. dania.nawaz says:

    Severus Snape would not stand on his own. I cannot even begin to imagine him as Ben. It just doesn’t cut it. LOL
    Loved the post, so beautifully written – keep writing πŸ˜€

  70. Great post! Just yesterday I was struggling to find a decent name for a new character in my novel. Thanks for sharing the name generator link … it’s great!

  71. Absolutely agree! I believe that it is part of positive confessions where we speak events into reality. A good example comes to mind. In the Bible, God told Abram that he would be the father of many nations when he was unable to have children with his wife. However nothing happened until his name was changed to Abraham, which means “Father of many nations”. Only after he called himself “Father of many nations” was he able to conceive 3months later. Great post here!

  72. rosedixon says:

    Really interesting. Your way of finding a name is great. I will try it. I find it hard to name my animals appropriately too. By the way, I was instantly drawn to your post as you had the Rose picture there. I am interested in magic and one of the first things that you do is to go out and find your own magical name, something that would indicate where you are and what you are aspiring to.

    • Cool, thanks, Rose! I’ve only named one animal myself, my dog Katie. And she had the sweetest face with a little mischievous twinkle in her eye. That name fit her perfectly. Our new dog, Charlie, came with his name and it’s also a perfect fit.

      I appreciate you taking time to read my post and comment!

  73. zachbissett says:

    I obsess over character and place names, my own and in books I read. It seems like a waste of time but sometimes the perfect name really helps a story move along. Amory Blaine, of “This Side of Paradise,” is a character who wears his name well.

    I’m reading Chabon’s new book “Telegraph Avenue,” and while I’m enjoying it…I’m not sure his character names have ever been worse. He introduces a new character every page, and each new name has me cringing. Very distracting. Good post.

    • Thank you, Zach! You say it perfectly with a character wearing a name. So if the name wears the character does that make it a caricature?

      Good to know about Chabon’s new book. Loved “Yiddish Policeman’s Union” and have added “Telegraph Avenue” to my to-read list.

      Thank you for taking time to comment!

  74. Meg says:

    Love it! Sometimes it’s so easy for me to name a character, and other times: agony. Alexander is one of my beloved character names–for the reason that his name means defender of the people (and there’s the whole Alexander the Great thing). I tell you though, whenever a name just clicks into place, it’s amazing! Thanks for the great post. πŸ™‚

    • Thank you so much, Meg! I know, when things click, it’s almost like we as writers aren’t in control, but that the characters are living, breathing individuals. And I think the reader can tell when that happens as well.

      Thank you for taking time to comment! Happy Writing!

  75. Great post! I am currently writing a novel and I think character names can actually make a story interesting! Better the names, better the story!

  76. Dave Higgins says:

    We are shaped by our names: as well as the obvious issue of how easy it is to mock in a child, unconsidered issues such as the first letter can make a real difference in youth. How many times at school were you ordered alphabetically? Having a name that places you in the second half of the alphabet has been linked to poor academic performance.

    I have tried with some stories to have names that have meaning; however, unless I am writing a modern novel the lists of names with meanings for specific periods sometimes seem quite short so it leads to repetition.

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Dave! Yeah, there’s the downside to names, children mocking. And I had no clue about kids being in the second half of the alphabet having lower performance. That is really interesting (especially since I fall in that category).

      That’s true – the name definitely needs to fit the time period. Happy Writing!

  77. LizForADay says:

    I am no writer by any means, but I found this article to be very thought provoking. I never thought of how powerful an name could be. I guess that is why I am not a writer. Great post. πŸ™‚

  78. Love this post. Congrats. I was just having a conversation about this with my teen daughter, who also writes. She was searching for a character’s name. I told her that she has to consider that no one names themselves (unless it’s a nickname or the character did, indeed rename him/herself) other than that she might want to consider what the character’s parents would likely have named him/her or whether she wants a name that would have and meaningful place in the character’s development (i.e. like a person who was teased about the name or “I never felt like a [insert name]) or whether there is an ethnic component — what is the ethnicity of the parents? Religion? Etc?

    Mind you, when I named my actual children I had baby name books spilled over the hospital bed worrying about syllables and how it looked in print . . .

    • Thank you so much! I love that you and your daughter are both writers. I hope that this is something I can share with my future children. My parents were so awesome to inspire and support my need for storytelling (except when it was me trying to get out of trouble …), and I love when I see other parents inciting that with their children. Kudos to you!

      Thank you for taking time to comment. May the Muse always whisper in both of your ears. πŸ™‚

  79. Character names, much like titles, I try to decide at the end, but there’s certainly that odd occasion where the name creates the character and we as authors can’t help but to run with it. And personally, Snape would probably have been more creepy if he was called Ben Thomas, because that’s a name you expect from a neighbour or someone average, so in that sense a name which contradicts the character can also be quite powerful.

  80. tearmatt says:

    I personally find that naming things is extremely important. it helps to get the brand identity across.

  81. Pingback: Blog Comments | Be Happy No Worries

  82. jackkastor says:

    Thought-provoking. Especially seeing as I just gave a relatively painless lierary birth to β€˜Osmium Mechspanner.’ Certainly a name and a character define one another, and if the fit is wrong it shows. β€˜Morgoth’ is one of my favourite names in fiction because when you read about him you can actually smell the evil.

  83. Thanks for this, I enjoyed reading it and totally agree with you on the importance of names. Congrats on being freshly pressed!

  84. George Talbot says:

    Right you be. Names can be the best facet of classic literature. A reader already knows what Captain Ahab looks like the first time his nick is printed. Same with Ebenezer Scrooge: I already know he’s got beady eyes and lots of nose hair.

    Maybe there’s a good story using generic names akin to Leslie, Marion, Bobby Joe, Johnny. Let readers figure out gender on their own.

    Good post. Hot-ticket blog. Thank you.

  85. blake085 says:

    The name is very important, I think it defines the personality (or the 80% of it) of the character, I’m new at this thing called writing, but I’m impressed on how a word can make a world.

    • Hi Blake, welcome to writing! It’s the most frustrating and rewarding endeavor ever. You’re right, the power of words is something special – a word can make a friend or make an enemy, it can soothe a child or create a tantrum, and it can start chapters or end them. Words are our paint, and the page is our canvas.

      Happy Writing! May the Muse always whisper in your ear.

  86. Venom says:

    I think whether the character would stand on their own or not without a memorable name has to do with the author and how well they are able to portray the character and make the readers feel and remember them.

  87. You’re absolutely right about how important names are. In fact, I recently did a post on Literary
    Rambles concerning different methods we can use to find just the right ones for our characters.
    And by coincidence, the title is the same as your post’s!

  88. Miriam Joy says:

    Names definitely help. Some characters I’ve given a name only for them to ‘grow out of it’, and for me to have to think of a different one. (Incidentally, Hermione Granger wasn’t always called Hermione Granger.) Some characters I spent hours naming and then it really fits. It varies a lot from project to project. I think more carefully if they’re fairies or aliens or something, to fit with their cultural background. Humans have all sorts of random names these days πŸ˜€

  89. liamodell1 says:

    It’s always a tricky problem for a writer…I find it hard myself!

  90. Billy Bogsworth or James Bond?
    Billy the Kid or William Bonney?
    Prince Billy or Prince William?
    Billy Bob Thorton or William Robert Thorton?
    William Tell or Bill Tell?

  91. ocjarman1 says:

    hi to one and all!! I’m very new at this both blogging & writing fiction!! My protagonist’s name is Edie–this story of mine is loosely based on part of my mom’s life.
    I ‘ve read yesterday’s posts–yes, I do agree some children’s names as they grow into adults “haunt” them. Case in point: my-gosh-awful-childhood-nickname!! Thank You, Lord, there are 2 people who use that name for me!
    I, now, have to drum up some names for my characters–yes, I’ll check all of those name web-sites as well

  92. stspectator says:

    Names are important for writers as it is for people in general. Picking a name for a a new born is an elaborate business in many Asian and African societies. There is a lot in a name………….even though Juliet thought otherwise.

    • πŸ™‚ Exactly! So I’m reading a non-fiction book for my book club (Sex at Dawn, it’s about the history of sex … yeah, we’re a drinking club that can read). But, there was something I read earlier in the book about an island society in which it’s taboo to speak someone’s name, it’s that personal. That really intrigued me. I need to go back and find that section and read more about that society.

      Happy Writing!

  93. SuperDude526 says:

    Ah, Baby Names…that’s been my go-to for YEARS! But yeah, I’ve run through all my good names, so it has been slim pickings the last couple years for good, solid character names. I also have this nasty compulsion against reusing names, so I feel sorta stuck.

  94. TizMellyMel says:

    I think I waste too much thought on names for my characters and I’m a BabyCenter.com researcher too! LOL! Ultimately, the character’s traits, actions, etc should be the things that shine through and makes them memorable, not just their name.

  95. lovely post … i have enjoyed reading your article !
    And yes agreed with your comment too..

    ” Names are really fun. And you know, the great thing about being writers, we can names hundreds of β€œpeople” without the labor!”

  96. mocrystals says:

    Its all in the name,that’s what I’ve always believed. Awesome read!!!!

  97. I know of a person called Jo king, who is a councillor at my local college :O gets a lot of stick

  98. brain4rent says:

    Good arguments on both sides…depends on the story in my opinion…how quickly is it necessary for the reader to understand your character…if it’s a mystery, you may want to keep it that way and call him “Ben”….if there’s the opportunity to sell movie version merchandising and that is part of your “literary” plan, then go for the more memorable name that is more likely to share characteristics with the character. FWIW, I am all for making money in as many avenues as possible as a writer, so this is not a disparaging remark about that.

    • LOL! We writers have to take money where we can get it. πŸ˜‰

      You make an excellent point. If we want the character to unfold, we should go with something that blends in.

      Thank you for your comment!

  99. Hi Kimberly

    Nice topic. I think that, particularly in the examples that you cited of suitable character names, the tendency is to retroactively inject otherwise arbitrary names with a significance that they didn’t necessarily contain prior to reading about the character. Humbert Humbert, for example, is, in itself, merely curious — but hardly ‘creepy’.

    However, I like the idea of situating character names within an etymology that reflects that character’s personality or function within a narrative. It’s a clever means of adding an extra dimension to the symbolic structures in which characters, storylines and themes are embedded.

    Why restrict the etymological significance to character names alone, one might ask. Often, words are used in (non-)fictional writing that can disseminate in multiple directions, if one pays attention to the etymology of these words. Trouble is, the author typically unaware of these resonances.

    • Thank you so much! I truly believe that when a writer fully enters the fictive dream things happen that we are no longer in control of …whether that includes plots that are woven together seamlessly or a character’s name that fits in a way you never realized. Something really magical happens when we create.

      I really appreciate you taking time to comment. Happy Writing!

  100. Enjoyed reading this post of yours.The topic is definitely interesting.Talking of me, I remember unique names of characters mentioned in books or movies (even if I am unable to recollect names of movies). I remember the name Montmorency (name of the dog in Packing authored by Jerome.K.Jerome). I was more than fascinated by names like Jaguar Paw,Flint Sky,Zero Wolf,Turtles run of (characters from the movie Apocalypto).

  101. I definitely think the name is important- when i’m creating characters, i always research the background behind the names, but i try to find a name to fit a character, not the other way around.
    Great post πŸ™‚

  102. Thembi Zulu says:

    Being in high school I have come to understand that everything is in a name. If you have a wierd name, do expect the other learners to make fun of it, and do expect the teachers to take a second look at your name before they read it out. This has sometimes led me to think that perhaps a rose wouldn’t smell as sweet if it wasn’t called a rose. On that note, I say: Juliet, you’ve got it all wrong, everything is in a name.

    • Thank you, Thembi! You make an excellent point about unique names. I went to school with a girl named Khalilah and for as far back as I can remember, teachers stumbled over it on the first day of school.

      I appreciate you taking time to comment. Cheers!

  103. mdprincing says:

    the names bestowed upon us at birth can be some of the biggest shapers of our lives. From children’s nicknames or ridicule to an adults aversion to calling Bob, Bobby as it doesn’t denote rocket scientist like Robert does.

    I name my daughter after a character on tv that I thought was strikingly beautiful and play the role of a very smart, aware and moral person…luckily I was spot on.

    Villan’s and creeps of all kinds are a good topic. If you want to hide their identity or hold a secret until later in the story a “normal” name works good like Ben, but if you want to make it clear right away that this dude is bad news head for the library of super villin names, something to make the skin crawl.

    I really enjoyed this an now have check your link to see what my name means…my guess is goofy bastard

    • Haha, I wonder if anyone’s name means goofy bastard. πŸ˜‰

      You know, I think I subconsciously picked Ben as the name because of Ben Linus from Lost. Totally unassuming name, super creepy character.

      I appreciate you taking time to comment!

  104. Names definitely add impact to a character almost as much as your own name can impact you. I once tested this by looking up the names of all the characters to a story I was working on. (No granted I picked selected names with out first researching any of them.) Upon researching the names however, I discovered how the qualities for a particular character resonated the name meaning. For instance of of these such characters goes by the name “Armedeo” which is a branch off of “Amedeous” (as in Mozart) which is actually a fairly affectionate name. Likewise the character of “Armedeo” is very loving, though sometimes seen as often tough or even slightly snobby. By contrast, another character (Dariean) is quite the dastardly guy.

    • That is very cool! So I admit, the only name I had to work on in my book was my main character’s, Amanda. But Alex’s name seemed to fit him perfectly. But someone else made the comment of Alexander the Great, so I wonder if that was in the back of my mind.

      Thank you for sharing! I appreciate you taking time to leave a comment!

  105. alanthreed says:

    Yep! A great post. πŸ™‚ ‘Wackford Squeers’ the Victorian school master, was another Dickens masterstroke.

  106. I agree wholeheartedly. Our newest family member is a male beagle-English bulldog mix named Bubble. The 6-year-old in the family gave the dog this seemingly-random (to me) name. Though the dog looks like a beagle who’s spending way too much time at the gym, he has become well-suited to his name. Bubble walks sideways at times, jumps, and even tries to climb low-bending trees. Anyway, his endless energy and often unpredictable movements now seem fitting for a Bubble. So, do we ‘become’ our names and perceive ourselves, even our pets, as ‘matching’ our names?
    A very fun read. Congrats on being FP!

  107. Great, fun to read post. Congrats on being FP!
    The 6-year-old in my family proudly gave the name ‘Bubble’ to our new beagle-English bulldog mix. This male dog looks like a beagle who has spent way too much time at the gym. Though I first considered this seemingly random (to me) name ridiculous, the dog has come to be suited to the name. Bubble walks sideways at times, jumps up on everything, and even climbs low-bending trees. The dog’s often unpredictable movements seem like a bubble. So, do we perceive ourselves, even our pets, as ‘becoming’ our names?

    • Thank you so much! Congrats to you on your new family member!

      I have to admit, when I was four years old I think I was highly influential in naming our male German Shepherd “Dinky.” Yeah, I think I ruined that poor dog. Bubbles sounds positively manly compared to Dinky. πŸ™‚

  108. df says:

    I adore the names given by Mary Norton, author of the Borrowers series, to her characters: Arriety, Pod, Homily – all of them reminiscent of more familiar ‘human’ names, but not quite right somehow (and yet wonderful in their own right). They borrowed names as much as the objects they took from the human world.

  109. Hershey says:

    Names speak into a person’s character. Think about it, in the Bible, whenever God came into contact with a person and changed their lives, He also changed their name to reflect the way He saw them, and that was fitting for their place in this world, and their destiny. (Examples: Sarai (quarrelsome) to Sarah (Princess)) I believe that there is a lot in a name.

  110. For a seasoned RPG player (like me), a name is (one of) the most important attributes of a charakter. Every player embeds in the name of his char the type of charakter he is playing, from his culture, profession, behaviour, style etc. If someone called himself “Exvoris”, which I have done once, you wouldn’t think of a rogue who is trying to keep himself covered, while “Galen Johnson” wouldn’t conjur the image of an arrogant, expressive sorcerer

  111. I’m not an expert by any means, this is strictly coming from a story reader, not story writer. However, I think it’s at least a little of both. The name is certainly going to give you a first impression. The character is what’s going to make love or hate them. I would say it depends a lot on what direction you’re going with the character, though.

  112. leemajors says:

    Great post I love it. My mother named me after Lee Majors, the Hollywood actor who played the 6 million dollar man and the bionic man. People notice me (those who are ‘still’ familiar) because of my name. My name is my greatest asset :-)) thank you for reminding to thank my mom for my name thru this blog…

  113. nursenoosha says:

    Wow your post is amazing! I love the way you write and the topic you’ve chosen grabbed my attention straight away! We have really unusual names in my family so names have always been a passion of mine. The way you described how names can be chosen was fascinating to me. I have always put so much thought into names, naming my children, pets and story characters and yet you have shed a whole new light on other techniques for naming. I really feel even more excited about name choosing now (especially for story characters) thanks to your thought provoking statement ” Is it a literary chicken and the egg? Does a memorable name make for a memorable character?” Love it!!
    Peace, Love and Happiness

    • Wow – you are so kind! Thank you! πŸ™‚

      Think of it this way – a character’s name is his or her brand, so they need to live up to what the brand communicates.

      Happy Writing! May the Muse always whisper in your ear.

  114. Loved your post. I love names. In fact even before I seriously started writing I collected names. I always had a long list of names that fascinated me. Most of the names I collected were unusual or different spellings of common names. At the time I was only writing poetry and didn’t need names but now I write for children and names are very important. One thing that I do in my stories is give the bully or bad person a very different name. I don’t want any little kid reading the story, any story and getting the idea that all kids named Bob are bullies or bad. Names are too personal and young kids too impressionable to tell them that their name is bad. Now I am talking about very young kids, I write for preschool and beginning readers. It’s different for the Harry Potter aged kids, they can figure out that its just a character.
    what made me aware of this was when my niece was in kindergarten and we were watching a cartoon on TV and she asked if they were real people. She was confused because she didn’t want the mouse hurt by the mean cat. There’s a fine line there where kids have a hard time keeping reality and imagination separated. Sorry this got so long.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words and comment (and don’t apologize – I love that you shared your thoughts).

      That is a great point about writing for kids. You don’t want a young child reading an antagonist that shares his or her name, so something unique would make sense.

      Happy Writing!

  115. navinahmed says:

    Your post is a lovely one. It really got me thinking… Names, I think, are the first impression of a person so its important that it fits the personality nicely.

  116. Great post and congrats on the FP! πŸ™‚

    I’ll admit that names come to me first and then the character is built around the name. A bit backwards, but it works hahaha

  117. Sajith says:

    Wow, thanks for this! I feel like a hatchling right now, being an aspiring writer and whatnot, and knowledge from wherever is worthwhile, and this, my lady, sure fits the bill. It’s a dilemma, deciding on names, and if I were to go by your logic, I should just let their characters and personality decide. Thanks once again! πŸ™‚

    • Hi Sajith! Thank you so much for your comment. The minute you start writing you are no longer aspiring … but you are a writer. Just remember that. And yes, let the characters name themselves. You might be pleasantly surprised. Happy Writing! I hope the Muse whispers in your ear! πŸ™‚

      • Sajith says:

        Hi! You’re more than welcome, it was entirely heartfelt πŸ™‚ That is VERY VERY reassuring, thanks! Thanks so much! I hope the Muse is here to stay πŸ™‚ Do check my blog if possible and let me know of what you think of my writing! Thanks!

  118. Finding a great name for characters is always hard because you want it to fit them perfectly. It’s always something I struggled with until I bought the book of 60,000+ baby names (which makes people look at me weird when I say I have it. haha) Great post!

    • Thank you, Kaela! It is hard, but I find when I over-think it, I make it harder. So any good ones in the 60,000+ baby name book? πŸ˜‰

      • Tons! Luther, Olivia, Donavan, Autumn, Serenity, Cal, Khalil, Mallory, Xavier, just to name a few πŸ™‚ It’s by Bruce Lansky. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve reached for it when I needed to name a character. It’s one of my most used resourse books πŸ™‚

  119. MY GOD – I tought about this so many times, and i’m glad to see that i am not the only one who does that. I do write stories sometimes, and yes, i worry about their names. I think it is essential for a good story, good names. I myself am really inspired by japanse names. They sound really beautiful, and are a story itself. Most recently i made a name ‘Mikumiki – chan’. ‘Miku’ means future, and ‘Miki’ meant sunlight. Future sunlight. A name for a cute pet. A rabbit, or something like that. I use normal names like ‘Emma’ or ‘Karin’ or i don’t know.

    I just think names are something that is personal. So, a good name for a caracter is woth it to worry about.

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