What’s in a (Character’s) Name?

For some of us, coming up with names is easy—just pick one that sounds right, or one you’ve been in love with forever. And sometimes it truly is that easy. But what if you want your characters’ names to be more meaningful, to be a better fit for your story? Olga Kuno’s got some great ideas on how to come up with just the right names for your cast members.

You’re about to start writing a new novel. Maybe you’ve already carefully developed a plan for each chapter. Maybe you have a plan for a couple of chapters only and, at this stage, have no idea what’s going to happen afterwards. In any event, there’s something you need to know from the very beginning: the names of your important characters.

If you’re writing a realistic novel with the plot unfolding in the actual world, in a specific country at a specific time, this imposes at least some limitations, but the range of names you can choose from is still wide. But what if you’re working on a fantasy or sci-fi novel, describing events that are taking place in an imaginary world? In that case, the sky’s the limit. You’re free to choose any name of any nationality that has been used at any period. Moreover, you can even invent a name of your own.

Coming up with just the right name can be daunting. I’d like to share some ideas on how to simplify the process.

Meanings

I suppose “meaning” is the most obvious reason to choose a particular name. After all, names are derived from words that are meaningful in some language or other.

‘My name is Alice, but —’

‘It’s a stupid name enough!’ Humpty Dumpty interrupted impatiently. ‘What does it mean?’

Must a name mean something?’ Alice asked doubtfully.

‘Of course it must,’ Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: ‘my name means the shape I am — and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.’

Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

Humpty Dumpty isn’t quite right, but in literature, it’s definitely possible to give one’s heroes names that say something about their character. Consider America Singer, the protagonist of The Selection by Kiera Cass. Her surname says something about her: she’s a musician and a singer. Yet another example is Mr. Knightley from Jane Austen’s Emma. It’s clear to many English-speaking readers that this name emphasizes the character’s nobility.

Sometimes, the meaning can even come from another language. Continuing the topic of music, one of the major heroes in Oksana Pankeeva’s Russian fantasy series is known under the (fake) name of Cantor. In Spanish, the corresponding word means ‘singer’, and indeed, the character was a singer in the past.

Connotations

A name may also obtain content through the connotations it invokes. This happens when it’s identical or similar to the name of a well-known literary or mythological character. For instance, it’s hardly possible to read “Bridget Jones’s Diary” without associating Mark Darcy with Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy (and when watching the movie, the association becomes even stronger, for obvious reasons!). Indeed, the two characters have certain qualities in common.

Geographical Inspirations

Associations may arise not only with characters but also with the real world. Getting back to America Singer, her first name is obviously identical to a geographical one. This is purposeful, since the heroine brings in certain values that play an important role in the United States but have largely been forgotten and abandoned in Illéa.

Geography can also play a part in a character’s name when the sound of it reminds readers of a particular culture. An invented name that ends in -slav or -mir—Jaroslav, Vladimir, Miromir—will bring to mind the Slavs and the rich culture surrounding them. Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha series is a good example of this. With a main character named Alina Starkov and events occurring in places like Keramzim and Ravka, the names are perfect for her story set in an alternate pre-revolution Russia.

Playing Games With Names

Yet another possibility is to think of a name that you can mess around with. A well known example is young Voldemort from the Harry Potter books. Tom Marvolo Riddle is an anagram for “I am Lord Voldemort.” And, obviously, Riddle also holds meaning. For a different example, consider Karina Dёmina and her novel The Bride. The character has two personalities: Tori and Hilda. So it makes sense for the author to have chosen the name Tornhild, where both personalities are represented.

These are just a few suggestions which may be helpful in resolving the difficult task of name selection. But then, it’s absolutely fine to choose a name because we like the way it sounds. What methods have you used for picking the right names for your characters?

olga1920pxlsBorn in Moscow and having left Russia in 1991, Olga Kuno has lived in Europe, Asia and America. Having completed her Ph.D. in linguistics, she started writing fantasy romance novels. Today she is both a lecturer in linguistics and a Russian fantasy writer who tries hard not to mention princes, dragons and magicians in her scientific articles. Olga has published 13 fantasy novels in Russian (however scary that number may seem!). In June 2016, her novel “Half a Step Away from Love” was for the first time electronically published in English translation. Her interests include British folklore, linguistic analysis of humor and animal communication.

Road Trip

Angela is over at Writers In The Storm talking about the transition between “writer” and “author,” and the learning curve involved. Feel free to stop by. 😉

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About BECCA PUGLISI

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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24 Responses to What’s in a (Character’s) Name?

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  2. Bob Mueller says:

    Ah, no one ever understands how hard the naming thing is, do they? I once named a character’s alcoholic firefighter father after the second Detroit fire chief. Then again, that same main character shared a name with a Shamus-winning hard-boiled PI created by Terrence Faherty.

    The research never ends, does it?

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  6. Glynis Jolly says:

    Often I have an image of my MC, going as far as snatching a photo from the web. Then I usually head over to Behind the Name and decide where the character’s roots are and try to pick up a name from that part of the world that will fit the type of character I hope to build. The meaning of the name rarely come into play. I go more by the way it sounds when I say it out loud. I never use a name I can’t pronounce. I don’t write fantasy, but I can’t see me trying to figure out a name from scratch for that genre without some help from the name sites.

    • Olga Kuno says:

      Actually, when it comes to main characters, I, too, typically make the choice on the basis of sound. Although I have Veronica in one novel, with whom the existence of different name versions did affect my choice. When it comes to secondary characters and names of places, I do use various additional considerations.

  7. Lyn C says:

    In my current WIP, the antagonist is based on someone I knew more than a quarter of a century ago (lol sounds impressive doesn’t it 🙂 ) He had more nutty SF ideas than my protagonist does, but by using the same first and last name initials for my antagonist, I came up with a name that kept him in my mind and made his character easy to write.

    I think Humpty Dumpty is right…the meaning of names is important. If you were writing a fantasy set in Wales, you wouldn’t give the hero of your story the name Bradwr, which, according to my research means traitor. Oh yeah, names are very important.
    ,

  8. I know that I can’t get into a character’s head until I know the protagonist’s name, and when I come across the right one, it’s like a gut hit–I just know it is the right one. I like to make a list of interesting names I hear spoken or read in stories, as well as drawing from mythology. 🙂 Thanks for the great food for thought. 🙂

    • Olga Kuno says:

      Thank you!
      It should be great to start with a name. For me it’s always the other way round. I can feel the protagonist, I’ve got the image, and then I must find a name whose sound will somehow have the right associations. Ideally, the name should feel exactly like the character to me – and that’s not easy at all.

  9. Kari Kilgore says:

    My name selections can be all over the place, but most of the time it’s pretty easy. For my first novel, I was listening to podcasts by someone with the last name Hunter to pick up the cadence of a Glaswegian accent. That led me to the last name Falconer because that’s kind of similar. The thing is, that name selection definitely shaped the character’s personality!

    Sometimes I use name lists from different parts of the world or historical eras, which is a lot of fun if I find a meaning that fits the character. Sometimes I put my pets or my nephews or other family members in there. And sometimes it’s just Bill or Jane as a placeholder, but it ends up becoming the permanent name. Once in a while I just make them up. So many different approaches.

    The most fun was one I’m getting ready to publish. One of the folks who created the shared universe it’s set in called me Karl, which has happened more than once in my life. Another slip has been people seeing my last name as Gilmore for some strange reason. So the main character in that novel became Karl Gilmore! I love it in general, but the little inside jokes are just delightful. 🙂

  10. For major viewpoint characters, the name just appears in my head as I create the character, or I see the name somewhere, and I feel a frission of awareness that the absolutely right name has been gifted to me.

    Or it can be like a cat name. I name it one thing then, after spending time with it, I realize I have the wrong name and change it.

    Over the years, I’ve also collected a huge list of names I’ve seen elsewhere, particularly peculiar names in local obituaries. They are my go-to for interesting secondary characters.

  11. Sara L. says:

    Great post, Olga! I love it when a character’s name bears special meaning, and when the names of characters in secondary worlds fit their language and culture. Those two points were important to me when I was picking / creating character names for my WIP. For one culture, I studied names from German, Dutch, Russian, and Scandinavian languages, since that culture’s own language contains bits of those. For another culture, I had created a profession called “name-giving,” where the name-giver names an infant based on a vision he/she sees of the infant’s future or personality. So, once I figured out what I wanted those characters’ names to mean, I took words from their language and “mashed them up” to create something unique.

    • Olga Kuno says:

      Thank you, Sara!
      Oh, that sounds cool! For the second culture, was the language an invented one or did you rather use some actually existing language(s)?

      • Sara L. says:

        “For the second culture, was the language an invented one or did you rather use some actually existing language(s)?”

        An invented one that draws from Hebrew, Finnish, Hindu, and Japanese. It sounds like a really weird mix, but they had specific sounds I was looking for to create something exotic and unique. 🙂

        • Olga Kuno says:

          Oh, that’s really cool! As a linguist, I am enthrilled! And I am also working right now on a post devoted to the creation of invented languages and how real typological facts can be used for that purpose. Could you write me the name of the book? 🙂

  12. Lisanne Harrington says:

    If the character doesn’t shout their name to me, I pick a nationality and then hit the Baby Name book for first names and online surname lists for the last.

  13. Great post. Will link to this for my writing students. Thought provoking!

  14. Judi Ring says:

    Just an interesting side note. The cantor in the Jewish religion is both a musician (he blows the shofar or ram’s horn) and a singer.

    • Olga Kuno says:

      Oh yes, definitely!
      It’s very funny I haven’t thought about it, given that I live in Israel! I suppose that’s because the character comes from a country that resembles Latin America in some respects, and his real name is Diego.
      But now I am wondering how the word ‘cantor’ came to mean what it means. The origin is probably still Latin.

  15. I struggle to pick names of characters (and my daughter when I adopted her). I tend to like them to mean something. Thanks for the tips.

    • Olga Kuno says:

      Yes, I struggle with names a lot, too. Sometimes everything is ready to start writing, and only the proper names of the main characters are still unknown.
      And with children, this is more difficult because the responsibility is particularly high.

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