What’s In a Name: The Importance of Choosing the Right Character Name

Director Christopher Nolan participating in th...
Director Christopher Nolan creates some crazy names for his characters, names that have a greater purpose than simply who is who.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I sat down to write the outline for This Broken Earth, I knew that I had to choose very important names for each of my characters, names whose meanings had messages all their own.  When choosing the right name for a character, consider two things:

1.  Baby Name Books – I usually browse through these when figuring out what name to choose for characters.  I usually try to find names that have meanings that fit the characterization of each character.  The reader may never know the meaning of the name or make the connection, but if they do then it is a really cool surprise for them.

2.  Sound-Alike Names – Sometimes it is not the meaning of the name but the sound of the name that is important.  The main character of This Broken Earth is Clayton Delroy.  “Clayton” means “from the town on the clay bed” which is pretty bland and meaningless, but he is someone who throughout the novel is shaped and molded by God to become a great hero.  In this case, his name sounds like the characterization rather than being used as a direct meaning for the character’s purpose.  The name Delroy, however, means “servant of the king” in that he is a follower of Christ.  I also named my villain “Asher” because it sounds like what he desires to do to the planet: turn it to ashes.

Some of the best fiction contains characters that have interesting and meaningful names.  Use the following list to examine ways that other writers and film-makers have used names to represent character traits and to create paths for characters.

  1. J.R.R. Tolkien‘s characters all have meaningful names.   I will focus on two for time’s sake.  Frodo comes from the Norse king Fróði who desired peace.  His story is one that Tolkien would know well being a scholar of Norse mythology and history.  Samwise was named after Tolkien’s neighbor who was a gardener and all around handyman.  Sam is also a derivative of the name “Samuel” which means “God has heard” or “name of God” in Hebrew.  Think about how much Sam helps Frodo in LOTR.  He is indeed an answer to Frodo’s prayers, and really how God deals with us in many ways…on the simplest of terms.
  2. Christopher Nolan named the characters for Inception in the form of an acrostic.  The main characters are Dom, Robert, Eames, Arthur/Ariadne, Mal, Sato, which spells out the word DREAMS.  DeCaprio’s character “Cobb” is a sound-alike for the Urdu word “Khwob” which means “dream”.  DeCaprio’s character name is also the same name as another character in Nolan’s first feature film “Following” (1998).  Of course, Nolan loves puzzles, and so this makes perfect sense for Inception which is, like all of Nolan’s films, one big puzzle.  The name “Mal” is connected to the song “Non, je ne regrette rien” performed by Edith Piaf which runs throughout the film.  The phrase from the song “I regret neither the good things I’ve done nor the bad things” is “Ni le bien qu’on m’a fait ni le mal” in French, mal being the pet name that Cobb has for his dead wife.  (More strange facts about Inception can be found here).
  3. Nathaniel Hawthorne was notorious for choosing symbolic names for his characters.  In The Scarlet Letter for example, Hawthorne uses both the technique of the meaningful name and the sound-alike name.  Hester Prynne, the shunned adulteress who names her illegitimate daughter “Pearl” (because she was purchased at a great price) has a very interesting name.  Let us start with her surname “Prynne”.  William Prynne was a well known Puritan minister who was persecuted for speaking out against the Church of England.  He was imprisoned several times, had his ears cut off, and was severely flogged many times for his outspoken railing against the Archbishop Laud.  The name Hester comes from the Bible and is another pronunciation of the name Esther, meaning “star”.  Esther, in the Biblical book by the same name, is the daughter of Abihail who is married to King Ahasuerus of Persia.  Esther almost single-handedly prevents the genocide of the Israelites, writing a huge wrong.  The other character of Hawthorne’s (even though all characters in the book have meaningful names) is Arthur Chillingsworth.  “Arthur” denotes leadership and the surname relates a feeling of icy, calculated evil.  Hawthorne is a fantastic model for studying the effectiveness of character names.
  4. One of my favorite books The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, contains three names that have meanings which make one think about the rationale for their use.  Athos, the stalwart “leader” who is the strongest of the three references Mount Athos in Greece.  In every way, Athos is like a mountain because his will is unmovable, and is even compared to a mountain in chapter 13 when a Bastille guard says “But that is not a man’s name; that is the name of a mountain.”  Porthos and Aramis, however are named after actual Musketeers, but the truth is that these are fake names to protect their families.  Naming characters with an alias that then is revealed later not to be their real name is a genius tactic.  It can be used for many creative purposes.

What other character names do you like?  Post below with your favorites, what they mean, and how they reveal aspects of those characters to the reader.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

10 thoughts on “What’s In a Name: The Importance of Choosing the Right Character Name

  1. I am finishing my first novel which is book 1 of a trilogy. The main deity in the book is a slight representation of Christ, and thus I named him Azarene, based off of Nazareth, or Nazarene, Jesus’ home town. I also named a few other things in the book similar to Greek and Hebrew words which hold similar meanings to their particular groups in the book. Such as a group known as the Breath of the Dragon, name Tan’nin Eustos. Tan’nin can mean dragon, and Eustos came from theopnuestos, which means God-breathed.

    However, I also named a couple characters based solely off the fact that I liked they way they sounded, haha.

    1. Sounds like you are writing a fantasy story as an allegory. You might want to check out “The Transgression Box”, a sci-fi novel I wrote a couple of years ago which follows this same theme. Let me know when you are finished with yours, because I’d love to read it.

  2. I just used the name “Hope” in a short story. Not a veiled reference, but carried the meaning I wanted to convey.

    Another place I find period specific names is the Social Security website … http://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/ . I used this when I was writing my memoir and I wanted aliases that would ring true for the age of the character.

  3. The nature of my job causes me to encounter a lot of real people’s names every day (no, I don’t recite phone books for a living), and I frequently come upon names that seem to have escaped from a literary novel. Some are just begging to be characters in a book. I secretly jot those down for potential future use.

    Don’t tell my employer. I’m pretty sure I’d be violating the confidentiality agreement I signed if I stuck a real person’s name in a story.


  4. I wanted a short, punchy, Irish name for the main character of my hard-boiled faerie novels. Perusing the baby name lists, I found Ray–not short for Raymond. I liked it so much sound-wise I didn’t even bother to check its meaning: king. And I didn’t realize what the last name, Farrell, was a homophone for until I’d finished the first draft.

    Brains are funny things.

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