Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What’s In a Name?

I have the hardest time naming my characters. The only thing more difficult for me is coming up with a title for a manuscript. Pure torment. I feel clumsy and awkward as I pound my head against my desk in search of the perfect character name. And why not? Names tell us so much about a character that we’re reading about. The greatest of writers have sculpted the greatest of names. Think Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter books. When I read that name, I think Dracula or dragon, and malice or malformed. As another example—Snape. It sounds like snake, don’t you think? Or consider Ebenezer Scrooge. If someone suggested you have dinner with an Ebenezer Scrooge, I bet you’d think twice before accepting. I would. Yet I wouldn’t hesitate if the name happened to be Stuart Little, even before realizing that he’s a mouse.

When I am trying to come up with a character’s name, I try to channel Charles Dickens, but that doesn’t usually work. So, I try a few other techniques beyond the baby name books and the telephone directories.

I brainstorm and scribble down words that come to mind when I think about one of my characters. Then I mix and match parts of these words to see if something interesting pops up.

I search out names on the Internet. For example, I might do a search for names of famous warriors if my character has a strong and aggressive personality, or names of chefs if he or she loves to cook. By the way, did you know that Draco was the name of a 7th-century Athenian statesman and lawmaker responsible for a code of laws that prescribed death for almost every offence? Something tells me J.K. Rowling knew this. Anyway, you get the idea, but I should add that I will often play with the names I find to make them a little different. Draco isn’t obvious, but Zeus and Thor are.

Year books, the Bible, dictionaries, and encyclopedias can also be great resources for names, but again, sometimes a bit of editing and word play may be required to nail that perfect name. And speaking of word play, why not check out the meanings of mundane names in other languages to add a bit of spice? Did you know, for example, that Antonio Banderas translates to Tony Flag?

What are some of the greatest names that you’ve encountered in stories?

If you are a writer, how do you come up with great names?


  1. You give a lot of thought to your naming your characters, which is good! I think about what to name mine long and hard, too. Most of the time, the names come to me. Poof! I know what to call them. Kinda like how my kids were named.

  2. Lobelia Bracegirdle of Hardbottle. This was one of Frodo's more disgusting relatives. Tolkien had the advantage of knowing these were real names.
    As far as coming up with names, they have to sound right for the character. Give up etymology and looking through reference books. Come up with a name that readers will believe sounds right for the character, then do whatever modifying or fake etymology you have to in order to make it work.

  3. What a great post and so much to think about. I've used baby books, telephone books and books of poetry looking for names. What I really don't like is when I've named a character and 2/3 through the manuscript realize the name is all wrong. It's hard once you've lived with the character to name change.

  4. Glad to know I'm not the only one with a naming problem. I love J.K.Rowling's names. I've gone through baby name books, phone books ( mostly for last names), and I've even asked people on the street...well, I did that once. It's difficult, but when I get the right one, I just know.

  5. Oh you can't beat Dickens for amazing names! And Thomas Hardy too. I mean "Tess of the D'Urbevilles" - already it resonates with tragedy and passion! sigh!

    I'm rubbish at names but I like to use flowers. I don't know why but I think a couple called Mr and Mrs Periwinkle is just ever so cute!

    Take care

  6. I wish I could say names just come to me. They don't. But I also don't torture myself looking for them. It's more like they slide into place.

    What I like best is that moment when you realize you're no longer wondering if the name you're trying out is the right one--as when you think of the character, she's already wholly linked with that name. I haven't written much of my new novel, but I am sure about the main character's name. And that's not nothing. (It's almost nothing, but not nothing.)

  7. Character's names usually arrive with the character for me. They're just there. Except one time when the character lied to me. She wasn't working out at all. I stopped writing, started re-thinking the story. A day or two later, I renamed the character. I swear I heard her laughing. When I went back to the manuscript, she worked. Her name made all the difference.

  8. I envy you, E.R. I wish character names came to me with a "poof." : )

    Great advice, Mark. Thanks!

    Thanks, Tricia! And I know what you mean about the hassles of the name change. This happens in my writing more than I want to admit.

    Ha! I love that you once asked people on the street about a character name, Adrienne.

    Flowers! That's great, Old Kitty!

    Literaryfriendships: It IS a fabulous feeling to find a name that works. How great that you've got your mc's name down.

    Wow, what a great story, Carol. It shows how characters really do take over some times. ; )

  9. Absolutely! JK is the master at this. The names of my characters aren't always so obvious. But they usually do have meaning, whether ironic or true to character. Sometimes I just KNOW the name of someone. And the weird part? When I look it up, it really does match. Pretty cool how that subconscious works, huh?

  10. I tend to like strong names but my favorite character is Rachel Morgan from Kim Harrison's hollows series.

  11. I don't have trouble with naming my protagonist usually, it's just everyone around her! I always end up liking a bunch of names that start with the same letter and sound too alike. I have a 20 year old dog-eared baby name book that helps a lot. Titles are the absolute worst. I'm hate choosing those.

  12. I usually stick with common names, and try a few different ones on my characters. Usually once one sticks, it never changes. Suddenly it just fits, and no other name will do.

  13. I have to say I'm always thinking up titles and names, it's something I enjoy doing.
    The other day I thought of a chilling crime thriller called 'The Finger of Suspicion'. I imagined a disemboided finger on the front cover. LOL! I've been watching too much CSI, obviously (BTW I don't write crime)

  14. I LOVE naming my characters! Titles are often a bit harder; depends on the novel. I use the baby name sites, mostly, but I also have a list of names that snag my attention. I collect more unusual names, because I can't stand to have a blah name for a main character. ;o)

  15. I sweated over naming my characters. I researched the names and nationalities and what they meant. When I settled on them, I immediately fell in love with them. Then an agent told me that my protagonist's name, Skylar or Sky, is usually a girl's name and I should consider renaming him. That feels like renaming one of my children!

    BTW - I've known several male Skylars or Skylers, and zero females. So there.

  16. I have a hard time coming up with names too. I usually resort to the baby book thing but I find that after I get to know my characters better, I gravitate to a different and better-fitting name.

  17. Ah, yes, the subconscious is an amazing tool, Lisa. : )

    Hi, Summer. Rachel Morgan is a good name. Strong, too, don't you think?

    I hate titles, too, Lisa. They torment me.

    Interesting, Joanne. Maybe I'm trying too hard.

    The Finger of Suspicion--that is a great title, Madeleine. You have a gift, lucky girl. : )

    I think my dislike of blah names has turned me picky, Carol. Thus all the brainstorming and stuff.

    For what it's worth, Nancy, I think Skylar is a great name for a guy. It's different and not feminine.

  18. Another important ideas is to keep a name list of all the characters in your novel, to prevent any of them from sounding too similar. In my most recent manuscript, I had one named Jeremy and another named Johnny. So long as they never appeared together, it was fine. But when they shared a scene towards the end, even I got confused in the proofreading.

  19. I like to look up meanings and foreign languages always add spice. But I agree, coming up with names can be hard. JK was a master at it. :)

  20. Yeah, Tony Flag just doesn't have the same sex appeal as Antonio Banderas. :D

    Wow, I'm going to have to put more effort into naming my characters.

    I like Mark's idea. I accidentally named two characters, who were mentioned by name but you never meet them, with the same name: Jodi. And worse yet, one Jodi was a 40-year-old woman and the other was a 17 year old. The way I had written it, it sounded like the 40 year old was having an affair with a 17 year old guy. She wasn't. Oops!

  21. It's wierd, but I just shut my eyes and conjure them up. Works every time!

  22. Great point, Mark. Thanks!

    I find foreign languages helpful, too, Janet. : )

    I can see how your situation could happen, Stina. Kind of funny, the way you tell it, but definitely an oops. : ) I am going to use Mark's list idea, too.

    I'm envious Lydia. Very, very envious. ; )

  23. I come up with names early; I need the name before I can flesh out the character completely. Only once have I changed my MC's name after I started the actual writing. But titles! Argh!

  24. I have a name word file of names I just like. I also like being a teacher because I can see so many names in action! I have trouble with last names though. They are so difficult for me!

  25. Lucky you that names come to you early, Marcia. And I understand what you mean about titles. They kill me.

    A name file... Brilliant, Kelly! I should start one ASAP. Thanks!

  26. Our methods are all so different. My characters come first and then their names always seem to fit their personalities. I think I put some thought into what would be a great name for them. When I come up with one, I look it up to see what it means. If it fits, it's a keeper.

  27. I sit at the computer or with my notebook open and just think, what should I call this person? I do find that it sometimes takes a while for a name to stick. Donna becomes Deanna becomes Kathy. Huh? Once it starts to stick, I have to go back and figure out what she used to be named and make changes.

    Titles. I *hate* titles.

  28. I like to go to Baby Name finders or lists on the internet. Some of them will even let you find a name based on meaning. That's where I usually start.

    Fun post!

  29. Hi Cynthia - Another great post! I keep a notebook with all of the names that I hear and like. I am forever jotting them down.

    I wanted to let you know that you are the winner of my blog contest. Yay for you!!!

  30. Like C.R., I use baby name websites.

    When I plan my manuscripts, I'll come up with initial names and usually end up changing them. I'm always looking for that right fit.

  31. It's interesting how many different methods there are, J. L. : )

    Ah, I often have to go back and makes sure I've changed all the names, too, Jeff.

    I love using names that have some meaning, Christy.

    Thanks, Maeve. I love the idea of keeping a name notebook. And I won your contest! That's amazing. Thank you (again)!

    It's the right fit that I have such a hard time with, Medeia. A name has to feel right.

  32. Awesome blog and post.

    Stop by my blog if you like for an e-book giveaway.




  33. It's funny--some names just come to me organically and others I draw a blank. I love symbolism and so enjoy reading up on the meanings of names. I find that discovering the perfect 'symbolic' name for a character really helps me understand them better and what motivates them. :)

    Have a great Christmas break Cynthia! Hope you read lots and have a great time relaxing with family! :)

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  34. Some people are SO GOOD at coming up with names! I, sadly, am not one of them. I struggle and struggle. It takes me forever to come up with good ones!

  35. Welcome, Elizabeth! And thank you! I will stop by! : )

    Very wise, Angela. I love symbolism, too. Finding the perfect symbolic name is the ultimate prize. : )
    And a very merry Christmas to you, too, Angela! Hurray for reading and family time!

    Ah, I struggle too, Peggy. Names and titles are a lot of work. So it goes.