Rosanne Dingli

Rosanne Dingli

Monday, September 6, 2010

Giving Your Characters Appropriate Names: and Making them Eternal

Sherlock Holmes                                     Image via Wikipedia
When a writer tells a story, by far the most important aspect is the characters that populate the narrative. They need to be given a life of their own: they need life breathed into them. Most authors will agree that deep and intimate knowledge of each and every character is essential: an author needs to not only create, but fully understand all characters in a piece of fiction.

So labeling them with appropriate names is important.  Many authors go to some length to ensure that the names they give their characters match their personalities. How can one do this without stereotyping them, or falling into the ridiculous by using sweet names for pleasant heroines and rugged labels for the baddies?

Thinking of landmark books and their characters might give an idea of what has gone before, and how the names of certain characters have stuck in the collective mind of readers: who can forget Scarlett in Gone With the Wind, and the equally memorable Rhett Butler? Even the name Robert Langdon conjures the mental impression of an earnest symbologist! 

A reader would have to admit that some novelists had great knack for chosing names that went on to become household names: Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Atticus Finch, Bridget Jones, Sydney Carton, Artemis Fowl and Holden Caulfield will never be forgotten, and will always instantly fetch for us the titles of the books in which they appear.

How do authors do this? What goes into finding good memorable names that make characters in books eternal? Use of a dictionary of names is vital to many authors. There are good ones to be had. Some are simple baby-naming books that give a brief indication of the possible meaning of names and their cultural origin. Such as "Erin (female) - Irish: poetical form for Ireland, meaning 'Western island." Sometimes all an author needs is a brief and simple line like that to name an Irish character, or a woman whose mother was Irish, for example.

Sometimes the first thing that comes to mind when writing a story is the character's name, but more often, an author needs to research a protagonist's character, delve deep into the personality, and then go on a search for a good solid name that represents the aspects of the character the author wants to make spring to the mind of the reader when the name is read. The Dictionary of First Names, by Leslie Dunkling and William Gosling is one of the most popular books among authors. It not only gives meanings and cultural origins, but also dates names to when they were most popular. Essie, for example, was a popular name in the 1860s, which is great information for an author of historical fiction looking for a pet name for someone christened Esther. it gives the impression of a desire to be less grandiose than the original name, or an affectionate diminutive used by a housekeeper for a parlour maid!

It is truly amazing what atmosphere and character a name can conjure.  A vision of power and strength by Maximus, a very common Roman name used by early Christians; a vision of studiousness and modesty by Crofton, an English surname often used as a first name between the wars; a vision of lighthearted glamour by Marilyn; a vision of seduction and flightiness by Salome; a vision of Jewish thrift and canniness by Reuben.

An author needs to find a good representative name as soon as they invent a character, because that name will seem to form and shape the personality, and have a lot to do with the activity, dilemmas and resolutions that need to be planned for the book's plot. Would a person called Sheree, for example, be likely to lead a band of underground subversive radicals plotting against a tyrannical government? In real life she might, but fiction would demand a stronger name than that. Perhaps Tess or Ruby would suggest her strength and sense of purpose better.

Finding good names that are not too common is impossible to do without a good dictionary. Even making a list of unusual names could prompt a writer with much inspiration, and perhaps lead to the creation of a totally new novel. What personalities do the following names suggest?

Eleazar, Bronwyn, Mardi, Ceridwen, Sorcha, Warwick, Ysanne, Anders, Chrisanda, Sergio and Vanslow. Each one seems to suggest some image of a person whose actions, deeds and exploits could easily form, or change, the very form of a novel.

It is really not possible to write a novel using any old name such as Bob or Ann and then hope to find better names later - the book will take on a totally different feel! Not that Bob or Ann are bad names. Far from it - in real life there are many Bobs and Anns who are wonderful people. But fiction is not exactly like real life, and needs to create in the mind of the reader the exact atmosphere and character the author intends. Attempting to change a character name at any later stage in the development of a novel will do amazing things to the action and tone. It seems unbelievable, but it does!

So what's in a name? In a novel, it suggests meaning, form, character, and all the aspects we have culturally learned to attach to names, such as strength, background, tendencies and habits, wealth, origin and culture. Something as simple as a name is what could make a book very popular, and could very well make a character eternal.


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  1. Rosanne,

    Thank you so much for sharing this valuable and insightful information. I enjoy writing short stories and have never thought so deeply about how a characters name goes along and develops a story. I even started to think as far as titles that catch your eye and attention like Molby Dick.

    I really enjoyed reading this thank you for sharing.


  2. Frank, thank you! I do my best to put my thoughts here for other writers to use.

  3. Hi Rosanne,
    I like your blog. It's colorful and eye-catching. I found your post on naming characters well done, interesting, and to the point. Often beginning writers have difficulty to developing dynamic characters.

  4. Thank you for visitng, Dr.Norm. I like the discussions we have in various places, where we both contribute to the on-going interplay between authors and writers.

  5. Well-said, and I totally agree. Names for story characters matter almost as much as naming our kids, except that story characters really need to avoid the same initials :) All of you who read Russian novels will know just what I mean.

  6. Russian novels are confusing, Mary, because people keep calling the same character by a different name, depending on their relationship! Luckily I do not do anything of the sort with mine, and I try to give names with a different number of syllables, to make things easier for the reader.

  7. As someone who edits targeted writing rather than writes creatively, I am impressed that any writer can come up with a decent character name. I manage to devise names for my sample (anonymous) resumes by finding famous people with the professions of my resume clients. But I can't seem to come up with a good name for a pet or a car... bless the creative souls who bring color to the literary landscape!

  8. I couldn't properly sign the above comment from "B." This is Brenda Bernstein of Thanks!

  9. Brenda - thanks for popping in today. I hope this helps when naming your clients' cars! Pets are a headache: it's a good thing they cannot tell us how corny the names we give them are.

  10. Surely a few names should be out, such as (for guys) Bruce, George, Norman and Craig. And for female protagonists these surely won't do: Sheila, Becky, Jacky and Jane. What do you think?

  11. Like I said in the blog, Hugo: there are some really nice people who have names like these. But for the purposes of fiction, you need to give names to your characters that symbolise or personify the characteristics you need to impress upon your reader.

    I think Mark Twain would be offended if you suggested he made a mistake with Becky. And Edgar Rice Burroughs with Jane.

  12. Roseanne,

    What is it they say about great minds?