What’s in a Name?

If you, like I, struggle with figuring out how to name your characters, you’re not alone. Naming your main character (MC), as well as secondary characters and especially your story’s protagonist, is a daunting task. Names reveal more than just a relative understanding of personality – they reveal the world in which your story is set. They can be demure and ladylike or have a hint of malice. They can be foreign or mystical, a sign of a fantasy world, or they can be plain and ordinary. They can be completely fabricated and weird – and that’s okay, too! But regardless of what you choose, the significance of your main character names cannot be understated.

It just wouldn’t seem right if Harry Potter battled against a snake-like, evil dark wizard named Jonathon. Or if Elizabeth Bennett fell in love with a wealthy aristocrat named Cepheus in early 1800s England. Granted, maybe we could see this happening in a steampunk remake, but in the original stories themselves, the names mean something and were intentionally chosen to represent their characters.

Let’s look at others: Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet. Katniss Everdeen. Neo and Morpheus. Ebenezer Scrooge.

What do each of these have in common? They all have names that are relevant to the time period/setting/culture of the story in which they star. They draw on inspiration from other sources or from the historical meaning of the names.

Katniss was carefully chosen by Suzanne Collins, symbolizing not only her relationship with her father, but also her socio-economic station in Panem – often having to subsist on the roots of the katniss plant. Even better? The genus for the katniss plant is Sagittaria. And what’s the symbol for the astrological sign, Sagittarius? A bow and arrow.

Ebenezer Scrooge’s last name literally means “to squeeze.” What is he squeezing? His wealth and pride. His number one character trait until the end of the book is his consistent greed.

Neo is an anagram of “one,” symbolizing that he will be the Chosen One to restore peace. And while it’s an old Greek word meaning “new,” it also works well inside the science fiction future world of the Matrix.

In my own novel, The Elect, I chose the name August for my MC. Initially, the name came to me in a dream, so I did some research on it to make sure it was right for my story. Turns out that “August” means revered/esteemed. Even better, when I dug a little deeper, I learned about this man: August Landmesser. There’s a really famous photograph taken at a Hitler rally in 1936 that depicts hundreds of men with hands raised in the Nazi salute – all except one: August Landmesser. This act of defiance is absolutely something my MC would do in his dystopian world, and I was convinced that August was the perfect name for this character.

I recently posted a poll on Twitter and asked people to choose between three different options that explained how they chose their character names. Here are the results:

Poll 1

52% of respondents said that they research the meanings behind their names. This makes sense. I mean, don’t most of us do this for our own children? Before my husband and I chose the name for our son, we researched it to make sure it didn’t mean anything weird or creepy. Thankfully, it didn’t. But if it had, would we have chosen a different one? Chances are, probably. Shallow? Maybe. But names are significant. It’s why there are dozens (or more) websites dedicated to helping people choose the right name for their child. And when we write, are we not creating people, characters? They may be fictional, but to us and our readers, they’re real. Most of us want to honor our characters by choosing names worthy of their personality and role in the story.

I actually did a followup to this poll, because many people messaged or replied and said that they researched names, but not necessarily for meaning. Their research centered around their book’s setting, whether time period, culture, geography, etc. Here are the results from the followup poll:

poll 2

Granted, there were significantly fewer respondents to this one, but still – 96% of people said they take setting into account when naming their characters, whether a little or a lot. Only 4% said setting didn’t matter to them when naming characters.

Cate Hart, a literary agent for the Corvisiero Agency, was kind enough to let me pick her brain about this. When I asked her if she thought querying authors put too much or too little emphasis on names, she said too little. Some of her pet peeves? Outdated names for millennial romance – babies born in the 1990s most likely weren’t named Bernice or Shirley. And when it comes to fantasy? “Don’t make it too complicated to pronounce,” but at the same time, don’t choose a name like “Bob” either. Justin Wells, another Corvisiero agent, also said that he prefers names to match up to time periods and cultures – as much as possible. (BTW, definitely consider querying these two agents – they’re top notch!)

Before we finish, let’s talk about the other responses to my initial poll.

32% of people said they just choose names that they like. I get that. One of my secondary characters is named Elisa, mainly because I like the name. Her name actually started out as Ellie, but Ellie didn’t feel like a natural name for my soviet-bloc inspired culture, thus Elisa was born.

Some respondents said they chose whatever name felt “right” for their character. Sometimes you know in your gut what your characters should be named. After all, inevitably, some of our most favorite characters were named at the whim of the author, not necessarily because of meaning or history, but because it sounded right. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but you might consider taking the advice of agents and other publishing professionals and double-check to make sure it “fits” with your setting.

Lastly, 16% of people said they created names for their characters. I could be wrong, but if I had to guess, I would say that most – if not all – of these writers work within the fantasy and/or science fiction genres. These genres typically require extensive world-building. Not only do you have to select names, but you have to compose your entire world from the ground up. YOU, as the author, set the tone and create the culture for SF/F stories. As a result, there’s substantially more creative license with naming characters. Off the top of my head, I immediately think of Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass series or Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Cate Hart even mentioned the author of Six of Crows and the Grisha Trilogy when we were chatting: “I love Leigh Bardugo. She totally made things up. They feel familiar yet Russianesque infused but not to complicated.” Some character names are familiar, ordinary even, others are fantasy variations of names you might have heard before, and some are completely new – created by the author.

This approach can totally work in the author’s favor, but here’s one request from agents and readers alike: as Cate Hart mentioned above, try not to create names in SF/F so overly complicated that people don’t know how to pronounce them. As a reader, there have been many books that I’ve read in which I just have to guess at how a name is pronounced. Does it make a difference to the plot/action? No, not really. What it DOES do is slow the reader down when they have to stumble over the name repeatedly. A major exception to this, of course, would be in the form of culturally/ethnically diverse names that many English-speaking readers just haven’t been exposed to before.

So, there you have it. This is by no means an exhaustive resource for naming characters (obviously), but it is well-intended and will hopefully provide clarification for us writers still learning who our characters are and/or who we are as creators.

Character names are important. Research their meaning, or don’t. Choose a name just because you like it, or create one out of thin air. Regardless of what route you choose to take, know that there are millions of people ready to read your story. Honor the fictional world you’ve built and respect your characters – and readers – enough to give them the best work you possibly can. Happy writing!

2 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Wendy Qualls (@wendyqualls) says:

    I *highly* recommend https://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames as a character-naming resource. You can put in the year your character was born and get a top 500 list of what baby names were popular around the time. You can also track how popular a specific name is, so you can see whether it’s going to nail your character firmly in their decade (and thus telegraph their age to your reader without you having to say a thing!) or whether their name is an ever-green favorite.

    I only research name meanings to make sure it’s not stupid or offensive – more important is to Google the name (and first + last name combo) to make sure there’s nobody famous with that name already 😀

    Like

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