Do you know the meaning of your name, and why your parents chose it? Do you think it suits you? What about your children’s names? And what about your characters?
Ask ten different authors about how they choose names for their characters, and you might get twelve different answers. But just how important is a character’s name?
A Rose By Any Other Name…
Some authors just don’t care. A name is a name is a name. It’s the content of the character that matters.
The name might as well be a result of random chance, and some writers even use “random name generators” to find a name for their characters, particularly in the fantasy and spec-fic genres. Some online name generators include:
For my own work, I created lists of names derived from three real medieval cultures: Anglo-Saxon, Celtic (Welsh/Irish/Scottish/Breton/Manx/Cornish/Gaulish), and Old Norse. I then loaded those names into databases that have a random number generator. With a little tweaking for male vs. female and the total number of names in each database by culture, I simply decide the character’s culture of origin and press a button.
When I needed a lot of names from the same culture (for example, when I populated the hedge kingdom of Droma with its 3000+ citizens), I set up a loop script that assigned names to characters automatically.
For me, this was a good way of dealing with walk-ons and other minor characters, if I needed their name at all.
The Name Reflects the Character’s Backstory
Some writers go to the trouble of choosing character names as if they were the character’s parents, and thus introduce elements of backstory into the character’s name.
For example, I know a writer whose main character was named after that character’s great-aunt, because of a good relationship that the character’s mother had with her favorite aunt.
Other characters are named after their own fictional parents, particularly if the writer wants to make a statement about the character finding his own identity in spite of the hand-me-down name, or wants to imply a degree of “aristocracy” in the character.
Other characters have even more exotic name-origins: “Solomon Grundy, born on a Monday…”
The Name Is the Character
Other author’s believe that the name is one of the most important decisions they can make about a character, and that the name must reflect the nature of the character, or his goals, or his role in the story.
This tradition is a very old one. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the main characters of The Merchant’s Tale are “January,” an aged knight, and “May,” a beautiful virgin. The names reflect and reinforce the nature of the characters.
This school of thought often leads to names like “Dudley Do-Right,” “Dirk Dastardly,” and “Penelope Pureheart,” and are often found in stock-character fiction. For example, any character named “Michael” should be closely examined for the archetypal traits of “defender,” reflecting the namesake archangel’s role.
J.K. Rowling might be the hands down winner in this category. Names like “Remus Lupin,” “Sirius Black,” “Belletrix LeStrange,” and “Gilderoy Lockhart” are Easter eggs for those who are in on her linguistic jokes:
- “Remus” was one of the founders of Rome, orphaned twin brothers suckled by a she-wolf, and “Lupin” is an Old French word lupin, from Latin lupinus (“pertaining to the wolf”).
- “Sirius” is the brightest star in the night sky, known colloquially as the “Dog Star”, reflecting its prominence in its constellation, Canis Major (Greater Dog). And the brightness of his namesake creates a counterpoint to his surname, “Black.”
- Some might think—perhaps rightly—that “Belletrix” derives from French belle, from Old French bele, from Latin bella, fem. of bellus “beautiful, fair.” But I’m inclined to think (given her character) that it derives from Latin bellator, meaning “warrior,” particularly since “-trix” is a suffix occurring in Latin loanwords, where it formed feminine nouns or adjectives corresponding to agent nouns ending in “-tor.”
- And if LeStrange doesn’t speak for itself, the word “strange” derives from Middle English as a shortening of Old French estrange, from Latin extraneus ‘external, strange,’ something unknown and therefore dangerous.
- The character of Gilderoy Lockhart seems a grand hero until his evil cowardice is revealed… Unless you pull apart his name from the very beginning. “Gilded” means “covered thinly with gold leaf or gold paint” as well as “wealthy and privileged,” and “Roy” is a French word for “King. So the name “Wealthy and Privileged King Thinly Covered in Gold Paint” implies that though he might appear a grand hero, he’s something else underneath. And “Lockhart” implies that he has anything but an open heart toward others.
Named by Association
History, mythology, and folklore are rich sources of meaningful character names, because the namesake characters add significant connotations to subsequent use of their names.
For example, the character of Diana from Wonder Woman is named after a Roman deity who was herself derived from the Greek Artemis, Goddess of the Wilderness and the Hunt, daughter of Zeus and Leto in the Classical period. The authors of Wonder Woman were thus associating their creation with the illustrious mythical tradition of a warrior woman and perpetual virgin, a woman complete and self-sufficient in her own right. Truly a wonder in the cultural atmosphere of 1941 America, when Wonder Woman first appeared on newsstands.
In a similar way, I use this strategy for major characters in my Matter of Manred stories. “Eowain” is a common name among the kings of Old Irish history, and is the origin of modern “County Tyrone,” originally known as Tir-n-Eoghain, “the Land of Owen.” So my use of that name ties my character Eowain to a long-list of historical and mythical king figures.
Similarly, “Eithne” means “kernel, grain,” and she is the kernel or grain from which the rest of the series shall arise. In mythology, it is also the name of a daughter of Balor, an evil ancient king, who kept her in a sea-tower against her will, so that she might never bear the son prophesied to supplant her father. So my use of this name ties my character Eithne to a mythic tradition of women denied their freedom of choice in marriage.
One of my own pet peeves in fantasy literature is the use of modern Western European Judaeo-Christian names for characters born into non-European, non-Western cultures that have never heard of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. (I’m looking at you, Dragonlance Chronicles and Song of Ice and Fire.)
Westeros and Krynn are not Earth, and they have no socio-linguistic culture that corresponds to Hebrew, so the sudden appearance of names like “Sir Michael” or “Jamie” (derived from “James”) completely breaks the illusion and drives me absolutely crazy.
So when I was developing my own world, I made a rule for myself: No Judaeo-Christian names. As I mentioned above, for three of the cultures that I took for analogs, I made name lists from ancient sources that had little or no Continental European Judaeo-Christian influence, and would seem foreign and fantastical to a modern audience.
But some medieval cultures have had more of an influence on modern names than I’d like. In particular, French, German, and Middle-Eastern names from the period have often been updated into modern usage for modern history readers, or are virtually unchanged since their own time.
This was where I got creative. I would take historical names and determine their source meaning, and then take that source meaning and find an equivalent word in an otherwise dead language.
Thus, Ancient Gothic replaced French and German, while ancient Sumerian replaced Arabic and Persian. By this method, the “feel” of the word still reflected a real-world analog culture, but was sufficiently different from modern experience to seem fantastical. Thus, modern “Geoffrey” became “Gawairthi,” substituting Gothic for the original Anglo-Norman.
…Would Smell Just as Sweet
So there you have it. Ask one author (me) how he goes about naming his characters, and you’ve got five different answers.
What about you? What strategies do you employ in naming your characters?