What's in a name?

Prompted by Keith’s post about his name, and his children’s names, over in the Wish List forum…

I have an obscure Viking name. (Well, obscure-ish. For the UK in the 1960s and 1970s, at any rate. It is quite common in Norway.) Now that I am lurching towards middle age, I like my name, but when I was a child it was a different story. Nobody could pronounce it. Nobody could spell it. Until my classmates got their tongues/heads around it, I had to answer to all sorts of vague approximations, some of them quite bizarre. I hated my name because it made me feel as though I was different, and I didn’t want to be different. By the time I was grown up, though, I had grown into it. I liked being different. I liked the fact that if I heard that name, it was someone talking either to me or about me. My name feels like a part of me.

I have heard my name used on television a couple of times recently, and it was weird. What are you playing at, you screenwriter people? That’s my name! You can’t go round using it in your screenplays, willy-nilly, when it’s got nothing to do with me! :imp:

Anyway, back to the point (I do have a point, somewhere)… Maybe all children dislike their names? I have known people with plain names who hated them and wanted something fancy… people with fancy names who yearned for something plain… people whose families call them one thing, while everyone outside the family calls them something else… people known only by jokey nicknames and not by their given names… even someone so unhappy with his (inoffensive) name that he changed it by deed-poll to something that everyone else thought was considerably worse. Although now I come to think of it, I have also known people whose names are so popular that half a dozen of them have shared a classroom/office, but who were perfectly happy with that. Maybe liking or disliking one’s name is a personality thing, distinct from the actual name itself?

And here is the point (you thought I’d got side-tracked again, didn’t you?)… How do the fiction-writers amongst you choose your characters’ names? Do your protagonists appear in your mind complete with identity tags, or do you have to agonise over what to call them? Are your character-names meaningful? Does the choice of name affect their personality or behaviour? Do your characters suit their names, or do their names suit their characters? Do they “like” their names? And does it actually matter what you call them?

I ask because I suspect that I would be happy to call my characters A, B and C – but recognising that this is a Bad Idea, I try to find appropriate names instead. Instead of just plumping for Albert, Bartholomew and Cordelia (or whatever), I agonise over finding the “right” name. Which is ironic, because after I have read a book, I would be hard-pressed to tell you the names of anybody in it, because my mind sort of skips over the name as an identifying place-holder, which barely registers in my consciousness. As a reader, character names are meaningless to me. As I writer, I feel that they ought to have meaning. As a reader who thinks this about writers, I wonder whether I do authors an injustice by skimming over names in the cavalier way I do.

What’s in a name? What do you think?

I so grok your pain. And I feel like groaning in agony at being reminded I still have so many characters, places, events – and stories/books – to name.

It varies. Sometimes I’ll hear a word that has poetry or a musical quality that reflects a character’s personality or has a contextual symbolism. Other times I’ll break out the Scrabble tiles and have at it – the only hard and fast rule is that the results must actually be pronounceable without spraining the tongue.

Again, the music of the name is very important to me.

Yes, and yes.

If I’m lucky. :slight_smile:

Sometimes. It genuinely depends on the character.

That second part. Again, if I’m lucky. :wink:

Some do, some don’t. Those that don’t will typically demand a nickname from me.
[the cheeky little figments!]

Most decidedly, to me and to them.

I agree that just about everyone seems to have wanted a different name when they were a child :wink:

Character names are important for principal and secondary characters, I think. They rarely come to me fully formed, more often requiring a bit of thought, maybe a few clicks on a random name generator just to give me some ideas…

And they almost always have some significance. I’m wary of protagonist names that sound too manufactured - action heroes called Steel or Rock, for example - but I will often make them ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ sounding according to the characters’ personality. I’m also a big fan of genealogical accuracy, and the clues that can give away (a surname like Janssen conjures up entirely different characteristics and impressions to one like Neumann, to use examples from one of my own series) but obviously one has to avoid stereotypes, too.

Basically, it’s tricky. :smiley:

(Many of my tertiary characters are mashups of names from my bookshelf, for my own amusement as much as anything - Eddie Gibson/William Campbell, Dave Grist/Paul Sim, Frank Moore/Alan Miller…)

Because the project of the moment takes place in an imaginary town located in a real area, and its inhabitants came mostly from a real town in a real place on a different continent many years ago, I felt it helpful to harden the connection by plundering the graveyards and available genealogical lists of (variously) property owners, shipowners, archers, harquebusmen, pikemen, billmen, etc., from the small town in Devon that spawned most of the immigrants whose descendants I’m writing about (and, because it’s easier and possibly more honorable to steal your own history than to steal the histories of others, the town in Devon where my ancestors came from).

I alpha-sorted these names in a spreadsheet, segregated by their historical occupational or societal divisions, and as I roughed out the stories and the characters began to feel like real people, I kept looking through the lists of names to find the ones I thought the emerging characters might have worn in real life–sometimes keeping them intact, more often mixing first names and family names to achieve the appropriate marriage of name and character traits (I think it was Paul Theroux, in Kingdom by the Sea, who wrote that he amused himself on train journeys by naming strangers met en route; some people simply have to have the names they have, even though this might have eluded their parents at the uncertain and confusing time of birth).

It would have been fun to use the Dickensian naming system based on exaggerated personality traits, but Micawber and Pecksniff don’t quite pass the 21st-century reality-based naming algorithm, alas.

Minor characters not descended from the original settlers are sometimes named after people I don’t like (a technique popular with Evelyn Waugh) or for people I do like, (a technique popular with Stephen King, whose student-newspaper editor, coincidentally also the mail-order minister-for-a-lark who married my wife and I thirty-five years ago, appears obliquely in a number of his books).

A major character is named after my eleventh great-grandmother, whose name, Bathsheba A. Hussey, was simply too good not to use. In this case I’m not sure whether the character grew into her name, or the name grew onto her character. But 60,000 words later, it’s clear they were meant to twine.


Alan Miller is a friend of mine!

He was a friend of mine too…untill he borrowed £15 off me, and then buggered off! :open_mouth:

Honestly choosing a characters name is like choosing a baby name. It is a name once given will always be known by, etc.

Baby name books help and sometimes I like looking up the “meanings” of names to give some obscure hint at a character.

In fantasy sometimes using a "name generator helps.

But in closing yes I find it quite difficult in “finding” the perfect names

I generally name characters at (semi-)random when I first meet them, before they have personality. At that stage I’m guided by species (alien or human), culture, gender, age, and that’s about it.

Much the same way people name their babies - before they have personality.

After that, I very very rarely change the names. The characters grow into their names. Sometimes they develop nicknames, more often they don’t. I find it very difficult to name a character that has a personality already.

I agree with Antony about names for primary and secondary characters. I’ve occasionally borrowed from long-gone acquaintances because characters remind me of them, or vice-versa. For the primary characters especially, names can be significant. For example, a character whose surname is Soldat – in Hungarian and in Russian, the name means “soldier.” He’s not military, but he is persistent; he “soldiers on” in the old meaning of that word.

I seldom give names to minor characters – desk sergeants, bank tellers, landlords, those who show up only once or twice, who are functions rather than people.

And I agree with Janra about keeping the name once it’s bestowed. In my mind, if in no one else’s, the character grows into the name. I seldom wait long to name one, and almost never change once the name is picked.


I had been dwelling over names for some time, thinking them important to my story. My lead character needed something that would make her stand out from the rest of the characters in my book. It needed zing, impact and yet a certain amount of reserved style. I plumped, in the end, for ‘Number 17 Bus Shelter’ but wouldn’t you believe it, somebody had beaten me to it by one number. :cry:


I almost spit soda through my nose as I was reading that. :slight_smile:

I never name a character until I’ve devoted much thought to the scenes they’ll appear in, how they’ll interact with other characters, and what they ‘sound’ like. I believe people grow into their names. That being said, I watch the character ‘grow’ for a while, and presto… the name comes to me one day. At this point, it just feels right.

I may be the only one here, but I’ve always liked my name.
My name is the first thing that my parents ever gave to me, and may very well be the only thing anybody has given me without expecting something in return.
So this might be unheard of in fiction writing, but give them a name that tell where their from, not where they’re going.
Or better yet, what their parents wanted from their child’s life.
After all, most people never chose their names (you know, unless your like a famous rockstar, or an author under a pin name or whatnot), but their stuck with them nonetheless.

This makes me think of two things:

1: Defoe named his hero “Robinson Crusoe” because he remembered the name from a tombstone he had hidden behind while on the run following an affray he had been involved in.

2: (and more importantly) names were absolutely crucial to Tolkien, at the root of his whole creation. One of the things that gets to me: in the Chinese translation of LotR, the translator – at least the translation done on the mainland, which is the one I have – has ignored that completely, so he’s used different characters for the “Brandy …” in “Brandywine” and “Brandybuck”, and different characters for “… buck” in “Brandybuck” and “Buckland” for instance. It so irritated me, I was put off reading any further.


PS I like my name too.

I think names is one of the most important things to me when I write (though second to the actual story, of course). How they appear, however, is completely different from one idea to the next. For example, the name I have on here will probably be a pseudonym. For the story I hope to someday finish under this name, the main characters name will in fact be Jacqueline Dawson. The idea came from the fact that the girl is supposed to be a tomboyish girl, so obviously she will be able to be called Jack by her friends (and the Dawson part probably came because I was a bit amused at the fact that Jack Dawson is the male lead from one of my favourite childhood movies, Titanic). Other times, for example with a neo-noir novel I’ve been working on (yeah, I multi-task. I find it useful - I never grow tired of a story this way and quite frankly, my ideas come to a lot faster than I can write them down) I use anagrams as a great resource for names. One character, Annabelle O’Malley, has an opposite whose name is, if I recall correctly, Elane Noaly Ballem. No one will notice, at least not unless they’re really bored ;p, but somehow knowing it amuses me. Also, another anagram is something along the lines of Lyra Pitt Stoddeu, which came from Prostituted Lady. Of course, she is the head of the part of town where the prostitutes hang out. A third anagram was for the character Maccus Dane Simim Iliato, but I won’t say what it came from - that’d completely ruin the chapter he’s in, because a re-arrangement of the letters in his name will actually spell out the outcome of the scene. I just needed a character to be the viewer in that scene and I sat down and found this name.

So - what do I do? It’s never really completely random. I really enjoy finding names that’ll suit the story and mood of my stories (also, I forgot to tell, but obviously Jacqueline’s sisters are named Nicole and Danielle, because these names can be shortened down to male names as well, Nic and Dan/Dani). Names mean the world to me. Maybe not always their meaning (though I do look at that from time to other as well and like to give them a name that is completely opposite of their character), but the sound is important to me. The feeling that the name really suits the character and the character suits the name. Most of my characters I would never be able to give another name these days, because it just fits so perfectly in my mind (:

Oh, and PS. Obviously, most hated their names when they were younger. I did, at least. I didn’t come to terms with it until about a year ago, when I turned twenty. Luckily, being a writer gave me the opportunity to give myself pseudonyms and all ;>

You lot don’t know how easy you got it!!!

My characters live in the first century BC and come from at least 6 language groups. Some of the names can be Latinized or Greekified, but then some of the Latin or Greek names really should be Persianificated or Egyptolosed. AAAAAAAAARRRGGH!!!

I’m collecting lists of names in every language that’s remotely relevant and some of them have attached themselves to characters. But that might change, because I intend to run them past some experts for a reasonability check before they get much more settled in my mind.

That said, one central character found himself a nickname from no language I know of, and he doesn’t care how unreasonable it is.

Fun isn’t it!!


And all this while, ever since you joined the forum, I’ve been wondering whether you got “Ghoti” from Bernard Shaw, or H.R.F Keating …

What’s in a name, eh?

Mark (boringly!)

Spammer names. For a certain sort of fiction, some of them are perfect.


(It was therefore with partial regret that I read this week that we can all expect less such spam in future. :wink: )

Nice to meet someone with intellectual curiosity (:

Who is H.R.F. Keating?

No wait… Google knows everything… Hmmm… Yep, in a few years that beard might be as good as GBS’… Inspector Ganesh Ghote… Well I suppose that could be a mid-reformation spelling of Ganesh Fish, if the reformation took a very peculiar path…

My crime fiction writer of the moment is Kerry Greenwood in the Phryne Fisher (no relation) series. Would I like Inspector Ghote?

And what are you marking, eh?

Ghoti (no cloven feet here)

I really love the Ghote books. Having spent several months travelling across India … sadly well over 30 years ago … the books conjure up the atmosphere, dust, the humour and the often quirky outlook on life and use of language, and everything that was my experience of India very faithfully; that, along with enjoyable thriller plots. And the most captivating thing about the books is the fact that apparently Keating never once set foot in India himself.

As for what I’m marking … students mid-term tests :laughing:

Mark (a.k.a. Xiamenese)