If there’s one certainty about characterisation, it’s that names don’t exist in isolation. It’s tempting to think: do they really matter all that much? After all, our parents chose our name simply because they liked it. Isn’t it enough to do the same with our characters?
While this is true to an extent, fiction is not ‘real life’ as we know it, but an imagined version we use to create a particular effect. Character names form an essential part of this and should be chosen with care to avoid being hit by such dangerous debris as:
- A confused reader who doesn’t understand who’s who or mixing up similar sounding characters.
- A frustrated reader that has to stop every time they reach a character’s name because it’s difficult to read.
- A disappointed reader who doesn’t feel we’ve done a great job of creating anyone iconic.
It’s interesting to note that the only difference between the naming of a person in the real world and the naming of a fictional character is that with a baby, we don’t know their personality yet. Aside from this, as in physics, there are laws which have governed the names given to us such as our cultural background, location and era.
It’s exactly the same for fictional characters, with one exception: there are more of them. Let’s take a look now through our telescope to witness the giant planetary forces that influence our character’s names!
Planet Genre is a sweet, rather shy heavenly body, but she’s a stickler for the rules. Her influence on the choice of names means that they must make sense within their own context.
If we really want to annoy her, let’s go right ahead and call the serial killer in our new crime story ‘Runescape Moonstone.’ She would do an extra orbit however if Runescape Moonstone was the protagonist of a high fantasy story.
Fantasy is a genre in which there’s more liberty to create distinct and wacky names, partly because of characters coming from different worlds; partly because there’s often an endless supply of them to remember. This is true for all other genres in their own way.
Planet History is a pretty big guy and no name can exist without his influence. He provides the context for character’s names, reveals their cultural background, sometimes even their religion and class.
Of James Bond, Ian Fleming once said: “It struck me that this brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon name was just what I needed.” Bond needed a bland name to contrast with those of ‘foreign’ climes:
“Exotic things would happen to and around him, but he would be a neutral figure, an anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a government department.”
Planet Personality is the biggest planet in this small solar system and boy does he like to party. His favourite quote is: ‘His name was Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it’ from C. S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952); and for good reason.
Naming our characters is an opportunity to add something of their personality to the name. Once again, Planet Genre has a part to play in terms of how subtle or obvious we are and there are multiple ways to execute it:
Let’s take Scarlett O’Hara from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936). Mitchell originally called her protagonist ‘Pansy’ before changing it to ‘Scarlett’ dangerously close to the book going to print. Would Scarlett have been such an iconic character had Mitchell not made this decision?
Arguably not. What’s clear is that her name would have been a source of irony rather than a representation of one of the most fiery women in literature. In this we can see how characters ‘deserve’ certain names over others.
Holly Golightly from Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) is an example in reverse of the previous point. ‘Golightly’ is a portmanteau of ‘go’ and ‘lightly’ which suggests light-heartedness/ restlessness, personality traits which typify this New York Society girl.
Secret or Not So Secret Root Meanings
The real name of Vladimir Nabokov’s character ‘Lolita’ from Lolita (1955) is actually ‘Dolores’; coming from the Latin for ‘pain’ or ‘grief.’ This is reflective of the way in which Lolita is mistreated and the circumstances she finds herself in over the course of the novel.
Another example would be Lord Voldemort from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (1997-2007). Not only does his name suggest power, it also has the ability to instil fear, with the suffix ‘mort’ evoking the word ‘death.’ ‘Captain Fluffybunny’ would certainly not reflect Voldemort’s personality quite as well and would also have major implications for he who must not be named.
One Name or No Name
Speaking of characters who must not be named, withholding a character’s name is a powerful tool that many authors have used. It’s often deployed to convey a sense of unimportance or powerlessness, such as Mrs de Winter in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938).
We may also decide to choose a single name for a character, either a first name or surname, such as ‘Santiago’ from Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1951). This could have many different interpretations, but I feel it emphasises Santiago’s old age and world weariness, almost as if revealing his surname doesn’t matter now that he’s at this particular stage of his life.
Planet Location is Planet History’s best friend and they have much in common; especially when it comes to revealing the ancestry of characters.
Names vary not only between countries but regionally within those countries too. For example, I’m a native of Yorkshire, England, an area that was once colonised by Danish Vikings.
Most of the local villages and districts in my town have names that derive partially or completely from Old Norse. This often reflects in surnames too and is a unique characteristic of the area. It’s something I could capitalise upon if I wanted to write a character from my region.
In terms of generating ideas, we can research local history, look in the phone book or even talk to family about any ancestors they remember. Charlaine Harris, the author of The Southern Vampire Mysteries (2001-2013), based the first name of her protagonist ‘Sookie Stackhouse’ on her grandmother’s best friend. She once said:
“It was a fine old Southern nickname, I thought it would do well for my heroine. And ‘Stackhouse’ just flowed right after it.”
Planet Time is the smallest planet and a self-confessed fashion victim. She influences names based on what she deems to be in or out at any particular time.
She suggests that ‘Æthelswith’ is a great choice if you’re wanting to rock the look of a Dark Age Princess, but don’t be caught dead using it for a modern-day girl, of which she prefers names like ‘Ava’, ‘Layla’ or ‘Ella.’
Turning away from the skies, there’s one more piece of useful information that comes up time and time again. If we don’t feel entirely comfortable with the name we’ve chosen, it’s so important to stop and spend some time thinking of something else. After all:
“Names have power”— Rick Riordan
* * *
So how are you getting on with naming your characters? If you have any advice on how you choose great names (maybe some exercises or prompts), I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below!
Until next time,