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Why Character Names Are the Secret Ingredient to Your Story

This guest post is by Elise Abram. Elise is an English and Computer Studies teacher by day, wife and mother by night, and author whenever she can steal some time. Elise is the author of four books, including her latest book, The Revenant. Check out her blog, eliseabram.com. Thanks for joining us again, Elise!

Helen Hunt Jackson, American poet, author and activist (1830 – 1885) once questioned, “Bee to the blossom, moth to the flame; Each to his passion; what’s in a name?”

Quite a lot, if you’re a fictional character.

character names

Photo by kaatjervoort (creative commons). Adapted by The Write Practice.

No matter how real they may seem, fictional characters are constructs, a series of made up life experiences and carefully selected character traits that help move stories along. Everything about fictional characters–from their likes and dislikes to their deepest hopes and desires–is deliberately constructed to establish plot, theme, and symbolism. When considered from this perspective, it stands to reason that character names should be carefully and deliberately constructed as well.

You Should Be Paying More Attention To Your Character Names

Character names with alternate meanings abound in literature:

Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame is one of them. A veruca is a wart that, while not harmful, can cause pain, which makes it more of a nuisance than anything else. Veruca Salt and her demands certainly cause her parents pain, and even though her behavior poses a nuisance for Willy Wonka, she’s really quite harmless.

Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmations is another example. Cruella sounds like a derivative of “cruel”. Her last name, “Vil” could be a reference to her role as villain of the story. It could also be short for “village”, implying she is represents cruel evil in the village, an idea underscored by the word the last four letters of her name spells.

Given that George Wickham in Pride and Prejudice sullies the reputation of protagonist Lizzy’s younger sister and then blackmails the family to keep it quiet, his behavior is nothing short of wicked, proving that he, too, is aptly named.

How to Improve the Character Names in Your Stories

I’ve tried this in my writing as well. In my novel, The Revenant, Malchus is the antagonist, a necromancer recently raised from the dead and in the process of raising an army of zombies to build his empire. Dictionary.com defines “Mal” as “a combining form meaning ‘bad’, ‘wrongful’ [or] ‘ill'”. The second part of the name is made up of a hard consonant sound (‘ch’ sounds like ‘k’ in this instance), and the ‘s’ at the end connotes the hiss of a snake, both of which apply to Malchus’s cold and underhanded character.

In my work in progress, I Was, Am, Will Be Alice, the main character, Alice Mabel Carroll, takes her first name from Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, as her weird ability to time travel turns her life topsy-turvy, much like what happens to Alice when she visits Wonderland. Her middle name is taken from a girl Alice confuses herself with in the story. Her last name pays homage to Lewis Carroll, the author of the series.

How about you? How do you come up with good character names? Share in the comments.

PRACTICE

Your assignment is to revisit the name of a character in something you’ve written. Choose either something from the past or a current work in progress.

Make a three-column chart. In the left column, list your character’s physical traits. In the middle column, list your character’s personality traits. In the right column, list his/her hopes and goals. Study the lists to find a name, first, middle and last, that embodies as many of the points on the list as you can.

The name you choose could be an allusion to a character from another piece of literature, an association with a real-life personality (living or dead), or descriptive of your character’s strongest character trait(s).

I can’t wait to see what you come up with.

Post the character names you come up with, as well as the traits from which they were derived, in the comments below.

About Guest Blogger

This article is by a guest blogger. Would you like to write for The Write Practice? Check out our guest post guidelines.

  • Jennifer McGinnis

    I have a short story with two sisters, one of whom is a shape shifter. I had their last name just “Dean” a generic one I made up based on a character I like in the Stephen King Dark Tower series. But i decided to pick names that are more resonant, even if nobody ever picks up on them.

    So I went to Google Translate. She gets the shifting ability from her father’s line, so I looked up the word for “shift” in Irish (because I’m Irish) and it is Athru, so I made that their last name.

    Then for each sister, I looked up words that described their personalities. The shifter sister is in the shape of a dog throughout most of the story, the Irish word for dog is “madra” so I named her Maddie.

    The other sister is especially outgoing, and the Irish for outgoing didn’t work, but the Icelandic is “Sendan”. I didn’t want hers to be a fancy unique name for a midwestern small town of almost all white people, so I changed it to Shannon.

    Now both of my characters have names that match who/what they are, and even though nobody who ever reads my story will probably figure it out, I like having done that, as opposed to just randomly picking out names.

    • Victoria I. Sanchez

      Hi Jennifer! I’m writing a story about a shapeshifter as well! I like the thoughts behind your character names. Very cool.

      • Victoria I. Sanchez

        Btw, if you’d ever like to join a critiquing group, I lead a small one with fellow Write Practice followers. You’d be more than welcome! My email is victoria.i.sanz@gmail.com. 🙂

    • A Sharp

      I would definitely be the one to search it out. I put a lot into finding just the right names too. It’s always interesting to me, learning why and how an author came to name their characters.

    • Elise Abram

      Clever, Jennifer. I never thought about looking for translations.

      Best wishes,

      Elise

  • Victoria I. Sanchez

    Initially, I wanted my protagonist to have a dark name because he’s a complicated, rich character who struggles with his moral choices. I used the latin word for “bitter/gloomy,” and named him Acerbus. It’s an appropriate name for my setting: a highly diverse world with a mishmash of cultures. The “s” sound at the end (as Joe says) is reminiscent of a hissing snake. Also fitting because Acerbus specializes in transforming into snakes and reptiles.

    I named Acerbus’ opposing character Lune. It’s a name I instantly fell in love with for its phonetic simplicity. Lune belongs to a sea tribe, and as a woman, has a natural connection to the tides and moon. She’s a no-frills kind of girl, and I think her name is indicative of that. Lune’s name also juxtaposes well to Acerbus because of their economic differences. he comes from an old wealthy family and she belongs to the working class.

    • Elise Abram

      I love the name Acerbus. When I hear “Lune” my brain makes a connection with “luna” which falls in line with what you say about the connection to tides and the moon.

      Thanks for sharing,

      Elise

      • Victoria I. Sanchez

        Thank you, Elise. 🙂

  • kellypm

    I liked the article. Thanks. But I am amazed that you did not see what is so obvious to me, that Cruella De Vil is just another way of calling her a cruel devil. 🙂

    • Elise Abram

      (gasp of amazement) You are right, Kelly! I was so hung up on looking at symbolic meaning, I missed the obvious staring me right in the face.

      Have a great weekend!

      Elise

  • Miriam N

    Oooo this sounds like a lot of fun. I’ll have to post my practice later

    • Elise Abram

      Looking forward to reading it, Miriam.

      • Miriam N

        Hey Elise. I promise I’ll post it… but it might take a bit… I’m participating in nanowrimo this month. I haven’t forgotten I’m just busy. I should have it up there by Saturday but we’ll see what happens.

  • Avril

    Dr. Sasha Small

    Physical traits: She is middle age, tall, clumsy, long messy brown hair, beady blue eyes. Chronic alcoholic, ruddy red face. Slight overbite. Wears ill-fitting clothing: too tight over her large bosom, too loose everywhere else. Wears old, scuffed shoes.

    Personality: Thinks she’s gorgeous and sexy. Thinks men are enthralled, thinks women are jealous. Believes herself to be artistic, exotic, intellectual, but she is not.
    She is smart (has a Ph.D.), but only in an academic way. No street smarts. She is a narcissist and a manipulator, plays people against each other. She is frequently unscrupulous, though she can be generous. She can be intensely loyal to both underlings and those above her, if she believes they are “on her side”, and if she can
    count on them to operate in her best interest. She is naïve/blind in this loyalty, and will fail to comprehend that she is being misled, even being damaged, by those she trusts. She will refute obvious evidence and remain faithful to those she trusts, so much so, that she will come to be seen as a fool by others.

    Hopes/goals: She wants to be wealthy and powerful, most of all powerful. She wants to be admired. Tries very hard to project an image of herself as a sophisticated woman of the world, wants respect as a leader in her field. She and Dr. Tonias Black refer to themselves as “The Creators”. They plan to convince the government to implant “Cheery Chips” in every person’s brain, under the guise of curing/preventing mental illness, depression, and Alzheimer’s, then use that to gain control. My plan for this character is that she will self-destruct, as she becomes increasingly desperate to achieve her goals. Dr. Black and others will betray her, and throw her to the wolves.

    • Elise Abram

      Wow! Quite a bit of work is represented here.

      I like the idea of someone working to cure or prevent mental illness and depression falling into a pit of despair and depression and with a mental “illness” like narcissism.

      I also like the alliteration of her name. The fact that her last name is small and she feels anything but (at least initially) is a nice contrast.

      Best of luck with this project, Avril.

      Elise

      • Avril

        Thank you Elise!

  • Parsinegar

    What’s in a name?
    Well, many things can be!
    I wrote a novella with one of he major characters’ name as ‘Trinidad’, which in Spanish means Trinity. This character, before anything else, provided an air of two-timing and being a player in a romantic relation.

    On the other hand, I included another character named ‘Fidelia’ representing high fidelity. I’m not sure, however, how much it worked.

    • Elise Abram

      Very interesting connections. I like the Trinidad/Trinity connection, especially for someone who finds himself in love triangles.

      Take care,

      Elise

  • A Sharp

    Some say that the characters about whom we write are in many ways extensions of ourselves and/or others we know or admire. I start off with scenarios in my head, imagining what the characters look like and how they might act. I usually try to find a name that embodies their personalities or their aspirations somehow, and/or something that just sounds good when said or read. Sometimes I name them in accordance with the destiny I want them to achieve. Or, I’ll go through a baby name book and get inspirations, and if any sound exotic or lovely (but not overly so) and resonate with the character’s profile, I’ll go with those. Sometimes I change the names later, but it never feels right after that; it’s akin to renaming a child after they’re a year or two old!

    • Elise Abram

      I know what you mean. I have a character I named and when I was done, I found an old set of notes saying I had originally wanted another name. At that point, it was too late. I like the idea of looking through baby naming books, especially those that include a blurb about the original meanings of the names.

      Thanks for posting,

      Elise

  • Lyra

    My male main character in Wilder than the Martian Winds is named Eddie Tarkas in homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs and his John Carter of Mars series.

  • Annika Smith

    Several things can go into my names. Sometimes I come up with a name pretty easily – I invent the name, using soft sounds if the character is nice and hard ones if he’s mean. Sometimes I change the spelling or pronunciation of an English name that seems to fit but is too common. And other times I spend hours scrolling through baby names, searched by meanings that fit my character. Some examples are “Amria Zelimir” (literally “a curse searching for peace”. This fits amazingly since the character is a sort of curse on many others, but himself does not have peace), “Mara Ebony” (“Bitter Black”. Two words that describe her personality well).
    I also have a character named Tempe, which I derived from “tempest.” She really is a storm.

  • Dizzy

    I have a character named Destiny, and she’s a shape shifter. I’m still working out her back story, but her father is supposedly Hades. The reason I’m still working on it is because I want her to have been born in the dinosaur age, and when the meteors fell, she got her powers or something.

    Yeah, I know. Stupid, silly, childish. But I did come up with her when I was a child, and recently just found a story I wrote about her. And I thought she fit in perfectly with my book.

    Most of my character names come from the Greek gods, or any god really. But I started wondering why I made this characters name Destiny. So I started doing searches for the name Destiny, and I found the definition is “Certain fortune, fate”. That’s another reason I’m having trouble with her backstory.

    In terms of personality, she’s just a normal, sweet but bitter at the same time girl, besides the shape shifting. When I said “recently” earlier, I meant last night. And I was really tired. So I didn’t have time to think about it.

    Physically, she’s kind of pale, gold eyes, very petite. The only reason is because along with the story, there was a picture I made. She had magenta hair, with hot pink highlights, and she was wearing the same colors for her clothes, which was a magenta dress with a darker color belt, golden leggings with a hot pink stripe on the thigh, and glove with a gold trim. She had weird poufy things coming out of her head too, which can’t be ears, because I think I based her off a cat, for some reason.

    Like I said, I really have no idea what to do with her or her name at all. I’m thinking of changing the name to something that means gold lover or something. I feel like Destiny works though, and putting some sort of fate in her story would be brilliant, but I really can’t tell anymore. Maybe Oralie, which is French for golden. Hey, embrace your culture. Or maybe Aurielle, which is Latin for golden. Maybe a color name like Fuchsia, or a plant name like Coral. I don’t know anymore.

    • Dizzy

      Here’s a picture I found on my really old laptop. I’m pretty sure it’s Destiny, but I think I really like stuff like Sonic The Hedgehog back then.

  • Marianne Knowles

    Great stuff! Alison Potoma on Writers’ rumpus had two posts on this topic recently, but your three-column approach is yet another way to tackle character names. Here is one of Alison”s posts if you’re interested: http://writersrumpus.com/2014/10/17/whats-in-a-characters-name-part-2/
    Here’s one of my character names: B.D. for Big Dog.

  • Kayle

    I had the most bizarre experience with character names in my WIP. There were a couple names that I purposefully picked because they had some sort of relevance to the character, but for the most part, I stared at my keyboard and picked out letters until I found something that I liked. Much later, I decided to look up meanings, picking the closest real name to my made up one. All of the name meanings fit the character in some way or another. The only exception still somewhat works because it is the total opposite.

    some examples:
    -Amyan–similar to Amy, which means “beloved”, also similar to Amymone, which was a Greek woman who murdered her husband. This character indirectly causes the death of her husband.
    -Kariah–similar to Katherine, meaning “pure”, also similar to Zachariah, meaning “remembered by the Lord”. This character longs to have children, but has been unable to, like the story of Zachariah in the Bible. I also like that Kariah sounds like the word “pariah” since this character will eventually be cursed and made an outcast.
    -Arondin–similar to Aaron, meaning “lofty, exalted”. This character is a king. Enough said.

    And it goes on. Thirteen characters this happened with. I feel like there’s no way anyone would believe me that it was all an accident.

  • Phillip Ryan

    A great resource for a busy writer is RPGNow.com I did a search for names and found 1105 lists of names. Names for characters in English, French, German, Welsh, Italian, almost every language along with names for Elfs, Dwarves, Orcs, and Goblins.most with the meanings of the names. Not just characters, but also locations, shops, sport teams, even pirate ships. Most of these listS sold for less than a dollar.
    No I do not work for RPGNow, just a happy customer who can get back to writing Fantasy.

  • Callie

    I always thought it was Cruel Devil…
    EDIT: Sorry, didn’t realize I was repeating what’s already been said 🙂

  • heather

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I’m outlining a sci fi story and the main characters are aliens who come to earth. I have no idea how to come up with names that aren’t cheesy. I don’t want names that are crazy outlandish, but they obviously have to be completely removed from languages found on earth and conceivably from the same alien languages. Any advice for how to go about this?

  • Emma

    her last name is de Vil not Vil and it’s clearly the word ‘devil’

  • Jevgenija Ceceleva

    FMC called Norna, which is a name of a goddess of time, teams up with a god-like being who holds memories. That being is the third of it’s kind. I tried Kannada, through google translate it comes out to read Mūraneya. Or, Mūran. Which is what I kept for the beings name. I’ve since then used Kannada to make many of the names and titles in the same story.

  • Cream

    Having meaningful and creative names is great and everything, but reading through some of the comments I feel pretty safe in pointing out that you can go overboard very easily. You wind up with weird convoluted bands that are weird to read and hard to say and not remotely memorable, not to mention your reader probably will only see an obscure mouthful of a name and they probably couldn’t care less what it means.

    It’s alright to NOT be symbolic. Being a writer is not about how much symbolism you can shove down my throat; it’s about telling a god story with characters that are memorable because of what THEY do, not about what their name means. Take it easy.

  • Annabel Withagen

    My main characters are named Samuel and Leah; Samuel means “Name of God” and Leah means “Weary”. After faking his death, Samuel takes control and doesn’t listen to anyone else. Leah is tired, because she had to take care of her family, and now she has to help Samuel. Sam’s last name is Reeves, which is the plural of Reef. A reef is unique, mysterious, beautiful and interesting, and I want Sam to be that too. Leah’s last name is Smetts, which is also the last name of my former therapist.

  • Erisi

    This is an interesting article, and I liked it. In a story that I’ve been writing for a while, the protagonist’s master (as in, master and apprentice) is named Kaito.
    Kaito is a woman in mid-twenties when the story starts. She Is very wise and insightful for her age, and I wanted to find a name that reflected that. I scoured the internet, but the only name that really stuck with me was the Latin name Cato. Unfortunately, Cato is an extremely masculine looking name. I also didn’t want people to look at her name and instantly connect it to The Hunger Games.
    I looked at ways to keep the pronunciation, but not instantly remind you of “That one guy from The Hunger Games”. Kaito was the finished product. It still sounds like the original, but looks unique and exotic, and a bit more feminine.
    As for her last name, I made up the last name of Thaan. Don’t know what it would mean, but it does act as a little foreshadowing, as “Than” is the first part of the Greek god of death’s name, and surprise, she ends up getting killed.

  • HeatherLionClove

    I was writing a short story about Adolf Hitler (at the end of his life when he is considering suicide) and had him think back to his childhood and his time in WW1. His mom & brother are actual, but I made up a soldier friend for him in WW1.
    I named the friend Jayden Rosengarten. Jayden: Because it almost sounds like Jade (which would be a precious stone, as Jayden is dear to him), and Rosengarten, because it is (from German, I think?) a translation for Rose Garden.