What’s in a Character’s Name? Part 1

The etymology of names is something that has always interested me. When I was in high school, writing plays, I went to the local book store and purchased a baby name book. This was before the internet was a thing. My parents were worried for half a second, until they realized I was looking up the origins of names. Geeky, I know, but fun! If you don’t mind me sharing, Alison means little truthful one. I am a terrible liar, so perhaps it is befitting.

Writers put a great deal of faith in names. They inform the reader on a subliminal level about a character’s origins, personality and motivations. Think of a few of your favorite literary names, and I’m sure you find they are aptly suited to their creations.

A few of my favorites:

url-2Sirius Black from the Harry Potter Series

J.K. Rowling named Harry’s uncle after the star, Sirius. Sirius is also known as Canis Major, the Dog Star. This is appropriate since Sirius turns himself into a black dog. Check out MuggleNet for a full account of the origins of Harry Potter names.

url-3Eliza Doolittle from Pygmalion

George Bernard Shaw needed a heroine who starts as a gutter rat and ends up a princess. He used Eliza’s name to illustrate a very broad arc of character development. Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle, made a living out of doing very little, and ultimately makes a deal with the professor, essentially trading his daughter for five pounds. Shaw created the name Eliza as a diminutive of Elizabeth. 

To Kill A MockingbirdAtticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird

Harper Lee was definitely choosing her names carefully while writing her masterpiece. Atticus is a nod to a Roman orator who made good choices. The finch is a bird, similar to a mockingbird, and one could make a case that in a story about race, Atticus Finch was eating the seeds of injustice and not allowing the flowers of racism to bloom.

url-5Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games

Suzanne Collins chose her heroine’s name wisely. The katniss plant has nourishing roots, and is also known as “arrowhead,” a perfect fit for a very skilled archer. All of the characters in this series have names that feel right, because they stem from either a Greek or Latin root that matches their personality and talents, or because they have been compared to a historical figure. You could really call it the Hunger Names.

It’s Greek to me.

url-6The etymology of names is the study of the origin and literal meaning of names. The roots of names can be Greek, Germanic, Celtic, Slavic, French etc. For example, the root of Richard and Gerard is from the Old German hard, meaning hardy or brave. It is not a coincidence that kings throughout history were named Richard.

When naming my own characters, often I will have a vowel or a consonant in mind. From there, I browse the list of matches looking for connections.

One of the first chapter books I wrote, currently in my back-burner folder, had a character named Edgar. The name was almost right: Edgar, meaning rich, blessed, and spear. He was the son of a very powerful guardian, with special powers. But ultimately, he was not very spear-like. Edgar started to sound too harsh. So, I consulted my name etymology book and found, Edwin meaning rich, blessed, and friend. With this small change, a character that I had been struggling to like took shape. He was nobility, and his power was great, but ultimately, none of that mattered to him. He valued his friendship more than his birth rights. By changing his name, I was able to find the end of the story.

Choosing the right name is strategic.

Big shoes to fill, child's feet in large black shoes, on wood flOur parents, for the most part, choose our names before we are even born. We then step into the name, and wear it. Sometimes it fits like a glove, other times, like shoes that are too big, or a cummerbund that is too small. Although we may not get to choose our own names, we do choose names for our characters. 

In my Smith Family Secret series, the dog’s name is Hopper. We meet Hopper on page two, and he is an integral part of the story. Initially, his name was Texas!

I should mention that the Smith Family children all have names that are cities: Cardiff, his little sister Paris, and his big brother Zurich. With a last name like Smith, I felt the family might choose names a little out of the ordinary. Cardiff was an homage to my science fiction obsession and a reference from Doctor Who. My mother initially thought Cardiff was too obscure, and offered, “Athens or Edinburgh or Madrid.” But I liked Cardiff, and thought it sounded like the word art without being overly obvious.

Back to the dog. Paris ultimately names the dog. Here was the problem with Texas…

HopperOnly

The dog did not have any qualities that made him Texan. While this didn’t seem to matter much for the children, with the dog, it did matter. It was suggested that I give him a cowboy hat, or one of those rope ties with a bone medallion. But the dog had long floppy ears, so, I went with Hopper, like a bunny. Ultimately, I think Hopper is a funnier name for a dog than Texas, and it seemed to animate him in a way that was more true to the story.

Names are everywhere.

I listen for interesting names all of the time, and imagine who they might become in a story. A great place for finding names is in an old cemetery. No, it’s not creepy, some cemeteries are verified parks, and many are historical tourist destinations. I found the name, Gideon Snow, on the Freedom Trail in Boston. I have not written a story for Gideon yet, but when I need him, he’ll be there.

Also, check out the phone book, or go online to baby name websites. If you ever need a truly unique name, try looking up what celebrities name their kids; Mars, Kal-el and Birdie, to name a few.

How do you name your characters? Feel free to add to the Writers’ Rumpus!

15 comments

  1. Hmmmm. I left a comment and it disappeared. I spend a lot of time thinking about and choosing character names. That said, sometimes my characters come to me fully formed with names attached. John Steinbeck was really the master of naming characters. I could probably write a dissertation on his character names alone in Of Mice and Men.

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  2. I do a lot of research on names as well, but sometimes characters come to me fully formed, names and all. John Steinbeck was the master of naming characters. I could probably write a dissertation on the names in Of Mice and Men alone. Interesting post. Thanks for it.

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  3. Usually they go through a few name changes from start to finish, but my favorite source is… baby names to which my husband said “NO”. You would think with a boring last name like ours, he would have allowed me an Orion or Ceridwen so they weren’t one of 4539873457943 Joe and Jane Smiths (like I now am).

    But I think what’s just as interesting, are in-eptly named characters. When a human baby is born IRL, you never know their personality or destiny. Had I truly taken after my Popular Kid parents, my cheerleader name would have been spot-on. But instead I turned out this sarcastic introverted bookworm.

    My 2 cents.

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      1. Just thank me in your “acknowledgements” and I want a signed copy and a selfie with you! 🙂

        Now I want to see someone build a YA story around an April Fools’ prank where the MC makes her parents think she’s expecting…

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