Friday, August 10, 2012

What's In A Name?

I can't be the only author who takes the art of character naming seriously.

I mean, how often have people read a book and been thrown off by the name of one of the major characters? The weakly named hero, or the heroine you're supposed to love, but who unfortunately has the same name as the kid who bullied you in high school . . . Or maybe the gender ambiguous name that's more confusing than intriguing. Personally, I have trouble if one of the main characters shares my first name -- I see/hear it enough as it is, thank-you-very-much. :)  

Not every possible factor can be considered in the naming game, but there are a few practical considerations I try to start with:

*Ease of recognition/pronunciation.
*Appropriateness to region/genre/culture/time-period.
*Not already taken by someone who is either a) Famous. Or b) Prone to lawsuits.
*Doesn't begin with the same sound as other character's names.
*Doesn't rhyme with the surname, or other character's names.
*Sounds like a legitimate name when shouted. (Also helpful with naming children.)
*Fitting to the character's personality.

And then there are the slightly more subjective considerations . . .

-Hero names should, in theory, inspire strength and confidence. (In romances, this often shows up in the blatant 'alpha male' designations that conjure the image of a) Weaponry. b) Predatorial/Mythical animals. c) Royalty/Nobility. d) All of the aforementioned.

"Allow me to introduce Sir Griffin McDirk . . ."  >.> (Okay, -slight- exaggeration.)

-Villain names are most memorable when they inspire fear . . . or at least, intimidation. Consider the feel and cadence of some of the more famous literary bad guys: Moriarty, Hannibal, Hyde, Ratchet, Sauron . . . 

Not-so recommended villain names: Whitney, Lloyd, Edgar, Gordy, Francis, Milton . . .

-And while I do advocate carefully chosen character names, there is such a thing as trying TOO hard. (i.e. Unless you're going for humor, please refrain from gifting your sultry villainess with a name like: Trixie Vixentrot.) 

I began collecting and researching possible names for my theoretical children a good decade prior to their conception. So, I suppose it only makes sense that I would put a similar amount of care into naming the invisible 'people' who may one day be as much of a legacy as my own flesh and blood. For me, the traditional wisdom of owning a baby name book gave way to the practicality of relying on online sites like and .

Thanks to my fascination with name meanings and origins, I stumbled upon a printing press that specializes in this type of research. Not only is it a great place to find personalized gifts for anyone with a more exotic or obscure name, but the owner was so kind as to hunt down information on a character name I was kicking around at the time:

In the final analysis, it seems to be all about sound and sentiment. A name has to roll off my tongue, and its implications need to 'fit' the character (either in actual meaning, or at least in my mind.). I've been known to use names of people I know, or have known, while writing my first draft. I'm not above harnessing the power of mental association if I feel the thought of them summons the right emotional response, or aids in getting me into that character's head. Of course, just as with borrowing physical descriptions from real-life people, this method is a bit of a no-no when publication time comes around.

But hey, that's what the 'find and replace' tool is for. ^_^

Now, I'd like to see a few other people weigh in . . .
How do you go about naming your characters? :)


  1. I enjoyed reading this!

    I try to think of names that were popular at the time my character was born. Give them nicknames if it doesn't match personality.

    Sometimes "Bob" can be appropriate. I cannot in all reasonableness name a character whose name you have to ponder each time you read it. Places are the same way.

    I think reading should be pleasurable and not a game in your head trying to read.

    1. Greetings, S.J.! :)

      And thank you for stopping by. I'm so pleased you enjoyed the post! ^_^ It almost didn't happen. Having a glass of wine and then starting a blog entry at 1am is NOT the most inspired idea, in case anyone was wondering. >.<

      At any rate, I tend to agree with you. Readers face enough challenges without authors handing them a new stumbling block in the form of, say, a complicated spelling for what should be a simple name. Karolynn. . .Charolyn. . .Kara-lynn.


  2. Angela,

    Thanks for the interesting post. I'll check out the link you have for "name things." I, too, believe that names are very important. A couple of years ago, I attended a large writing group - people of all ages and writing of all genres. A man was writing a story set in the middle east. His protragonist has an appropriate Aghgan name. A member of the group insisted he change the name because it was too "foreign." Being a "youngster" in the group, I respectfully disagreed. Changing the name would've been like calling Mickey Mouse - Mr. Ears.
    I blogged on this topic as a guest blogger for Claire Croxton:

    Linda Joyce

    1. Hello Linda!

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. ^_^ Please do have a look at Mr. Dehnart's site if you have an interest in name meaning research. I've gotten a number of lovely personalized gifts from him now, and even more lovely conversation. I've never found anyone so attentive to their customers, or more willing to humor a writer's flight of fancy. I really will have to expound on my gratitude to him one of these days.

      And thank you for the link! I'll have to check it out. ^_^

  3. *rubbing hands together* Oooh. LOVE this topic. I don't know why I feel so strongly about names, but I do. Every single story I've written, from flash fiction to full-length novels, has characters with meaningful names. Not just rolling off the tongue, but their names are symbolic of *something*. In my first (Regency) novel, a twin story, I named the heroine Selina and her bullying twin Martha. Martha was the twin who outwardly checked all the right boxes for the time period--wealthy, sophisticated, beautiful. Selina wore frumpier clothes, glasses, and was more often than not covered in dirt from gardening. However, I wanted Selina's name to be more exotic and exciting, and have the London Diamond to have a more plain name. In my paranormal romance about elementals, EVERY name corresponds to the element the individual is aligned with, while the fifth element (heroine) is named Irina (Peace) Kardos (Sword). Whether it's the given or surname, my characters usually have a reason for the chosen name. I used less care, however, when naming my kids. *grin*

    Great topic and post! Thanks for this!

    1. Noelle,

      Yay! Someone as peculiar as I am about these things! :D I knew I liked you. ;)

      I love hearing about your use of symbolism. Names are such a significant way to characterize--I'll never understand how some people can pass that up and just draw names out of a hat.

      I think it's especially important how an author names their characters when we're talking about fantasy and paranormal-related genres. The depth and impact can be enriched to a whole new level if enough care is taken.

      And you are most welcome. Thank YOU for stopping by and taking the time to comment! :D

  4. Character names are very important. Sometimes, they name themselves and I don't have to search around for a suitable name. When I wrote my historical novel, "Indian Summer" the hero's name was easy - Manuel Enriques. The heroine wasn't as easy. I knew I wanted her name to be Gabriella, but her surname was harder. Since I set this in Florida in 1739 and she is the daughter of the Spanish governor, I didn't want there to be any direct relation to an actual Spanish governor. Some of their descendants are kicking around. I didn't want to offend. I rattled around awhile and finally used Deza. As far as I could tell, there were no FL governors in or around that time period with that name.

    Sometimes I choose a name for the sound, other times for the meaning. It's easy to get lost in name sites when searching for the perfect name. I had one character who, for reasons known only to my subconscious, was named Adrianna Hasselhoff. I kept trying to give her a different last name, but she adamantly refused. She didn't want a nickname or shortened form of her name either. Do you know how awkward a name that is to type?

  5. Hello Dellani!

    And thanks so much for dropping by to comment. ^_^ That's interesting how much research you dedicated to avoiding actual surnames. I completely understand why you did. Offense is a tricky Hydra of a monster--better off avoiding it if there's no reason to poke at it. >.<

    I've encountered the same phenomenon you're talking about, and I'm glad you brought it up. I think it's actually a good sign when a character decides for you what they ought to be named, and what they prefer to be called. I take it as a sign of character solidification. They've become so real to you, they've developed a will of their own. ^_^

  6. I'm embarrassed to say I think I put more effort into naming my current heroine than my current two-month-old :-) I knew my heroine's father was a stern, religious man, which causes a great deal of her resentment toward him, so I wanted her to be named after one of the Christian virtues. At the same time, I wanted her to use a nickname - of her own choosing - which wouldn't sound too weird. After a lot of thought, I settled on Perseverance/Vera. Perseverance really fits her, too, since that's a big part of why she's an interesting character.

    My daughter's name, on the other hand, came about because my husband has lousy taste in baby names and we were running out of time before I was due :-P He liked the name "Luna," but I and the rest of the planet associate it with "Loony Luna Lovegood" from Harry Potter. So I said he could call her Luna as a nickname if he really wanted to. In typical nerd fashion, he then wrote a perl script to go through the top 1000 baby names of the last 20 years and cull out everything that contained an L and an N separated by a vowel. Ellen's my mom, Elinor's my cousin, but Evelyn sounded okay :-)

    Bonus: so far he hasn't called her Luna, so I can still hope!

    1. Hello Wendy!

      I actually love the name you came up with for your heroine. The significance shines through, and the nickname is just saucy enough to feel like it's own show of personality.

      Congratulations on both the birth of your daughter, and coming up with a lovely name. Hard to go wrong with something that means 'pleasant' and 'life'. ;) And really, how many little girls can say that their father wrote a program just to help in the process of naming her? Exactly one, that I know of . . . >.>

      You want to talk nerdy? Guess how delighted I was when I found one of my favorite comic book heroines had a name meaning that fit the 'angelic connotation' motif we'd decided on for naming our kids. >.<

  7. This was a great article that I stumbled upon after clicking a pic of a hero with a sword. There was no name at the top of the blog, so I wasn't sure what aspiring and accomplishing author wrote it, but I enjoyed the wit, humor and clear thoughts that seemed to familiarly connect in a conversational way. And then I was surprised to see my own website linked in the text, and it dawned (donned?) on me that it must be the talented Angela who was writing. Great article Angela; your writing continues to tickle the mind. And thank you for the link & referral! I'd be happy to look up any names that your cohorts.. er.. collaborating academicians of the literati may wish to find the meaning behind. prepositions... Behind which your friends may seek. Okay, where's my editor...


  8. Ah, ladies and gentlemen . . . I give you John Dehnart, the intrepid owner of Cross Timber: Name Meaning Gifts & Research. ...whom I probably should have informed I was including in this post. >.>

    But there you go--see how attentive his guy is? Not to mention generous. I'd take him up on his offer, people! ;)