What’s in a character’s name

Do the names of characters affect how you read fiction, perhaps enhance – or distract from – the reading experience? If you write, how do you choose your characters’ names – do you undertake research; do names just pop into your head; do you name them before or after a first draft?

Also, what do you think are the most memorable characters’ names in fiction?
Contenders may include Sherlock Holmes; Bathsheba Everdene; Holly Golightly; Huckleberry Finn… Distinctive names all.

At the other extreme, we might have a character whose name suggests their very ordinariness, Jane Eyre, for example. he short and simple ‘Jane’ referring to he oft-remarked plainness, and ‘Eyre’ for… ‘Air’, I imagine, again, to signal plainness perhaps, or for Jane’s supposed inconspicuousness.

Dickens is known for the inventiveness of his characters’ names, often chosen to illustrate their personal traits or wider novelistic themes. In her essay The Naming of Characters in the Works of Charles Dickens, 1917, Elizabeth Hope Gordon notes that some characters are named for acquaintances of Dickens, or names he noticed on his travels (Moses Pickwick, a coach owner in Bath, for instance, ‘whose name Dickens saw on the door of a coach’). However, others are ‘directly descriptive of the characters to whom they belong,’ notes Hope Gordon. An obvious example is Scrooge, from scrouge meaning squeeze, a miserly association as well as ‘name disagreeable in sound’. Esther Summerson in Bleak House notes herself that ‘My first name means star; my last name means summer’, and she is as bright as one might expect.

The nameless character

Occasionally, a writer has invented a name that later gained popularity in everyday use. For his poem Cadenus and Vanessa, Jonathan Swift took the ‘es’ and the ‘van’ from lover Esther Vanhomrigh’s name to create Vanessa. Famously, JM Barrie used the original name Wendy in Peter Pan, said to be inspired by the small daughter of an acquaintance who would name a chum her ‘friendy wendy’.

Then there is another choice – to leave a key character unnamed, perhaps even your main protagonist or narrator. This might give them an ‘everyman’ quality, free of a specific identity or association. It might denote detachment, a role as observer, or even displacement.  Or it might simply signal a character unwilling to share their name. Well-known books that feature nameless characters include:
– Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier – highlighting how the second Mrs de Winter lived in her predecessor’s shadow;
– The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene – The Priest, a character with reasons to hide his identity;
– Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison – highlighting the main protagonist’s invisibility and perhaps the universality of his experiences;
– Surfacing by Margaret Atwood – perhaps, again, to highlight universality of experience and also her status as an outsider on a remote island;
The Road by Cormac McCarthy – notably, the nameless main character and his son, rootless in a dystopian world where names no longer matter. And perhaps to give them an ‘everyman’ quality; they could, horrifyingly, be any of us.

Come to think of it, Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s has a nameless narrator, too, possibly to emphasise his ordinariness next to the colourful Miss Golightly.

Anyway, below is a reminder of some basics when selecting characters’ names. In the meantime, if you’re really stuck, you could try a name generator, such as this one, to get you going.

  • Make the name age appropriate, depending on when they were born. Look back at lists of popular names from past years or decades. There are lots of places you can search for top baby names from years past, such as here.
  • Ensure the name is appropriate to the character’s nationality – or to their parents’ nationality and heritage.
  • Give siblings the same style of names (e.g. both Italian due to their Italian heritage), unless there’s a reason otherwise.
  • Consider regional names, particularly in historical fiction. Also, did surnames derive from a person’s local town, from their profession (e.g. Thatcher, Bowman, Skinner…) Were surnames used at all in your historical setting – surnames became more common after 11th century in England, for example. There are some interesting pointers here.
  • Consider short forms, too – would your Victorian young woman Dorothea be known as Dotty by her family and friends, or as Thea? Your Medieval young man known as Billy or as Will?  
  • Consider your character’s background, such as religion, social class, other cultural factors. For example, whether a character would have a saint name, use their mother’s or father’s surname – or both… Would their family name come first or last?
  • Make sure name easy to pronounce based on how it’s written… If it’s a name from a different language to your own, decide if and how you will transliterate it.
  • Don’t use the same or similar names for two characters – unless it’s part of deliberate social commentary, plot confusion, etc. Even consider using different initial sounds and letters, Jane / Jamie, etc.
  • Avoid names that already have a strong association with a particular book. For example, the relatively unusual name of Hermione will now trigger associations with Harry Potter in many readers’ minds (never mind that it’s been used by DH Lawrence, Shakespeare, etc.)
  • Consider whether a name suits the character’s personality – unless it is deliberately designed to be incompatible. This can be subjective, and also subject to passing fashions for names, I know but, for instance, the name Fox might set certain expectations (or establish irony).
  • Use unusual names consciously (that is, ‘unusual’ in the given context). Why does the character have an unusual or invented name: does it relate to their parents’ life philosophy, the place of their birth, and so on?

Image thanks
Main image Photo by  Heiner from Pexels
Smaller photo by Toby Osborn on Unsplash

13 thoughts on “What’s in a character’s name

  1. I wished I had been called Bathsheba when I was a teenager reading Far From The Madding Crowd, obviously more interesting then Janet! I was also convinced that I would call any future son Gabriel. Names are very evocative, but have different meanings for different people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bathsheba is an amazing name. Another good question would be just that: which literary character do / did you wish you shared a name with. My own name (Elizabeth) felt dull and good-goody somehow. Though I named my daughter partly for a strong female character in a book I love and… Yup, she doesn’t like it (luckily there’s a short form!)


  2. I think more thought was given to names in older books. Now, I think most authors just toss out names

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess people in general gave more thought to the meaning of names – more likely to name children after relatives, perhaps, for saints, thought about the meaning of names (the Esther means star example); perhaps that impacted on authors’ choices.
      I find it distracting if a book has a lot of made-up, fanciful and alliterative names for not particular reason. It gives a nursery rhyme quality.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m going to overthink this

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Complicated names are a turn off. A name that one can’t pronounce interrupts the flow of the story. If several names are confusing, I usually just stop reading, or won’t buy the book. That includes the names of towns, etc., if they are important to the story. Some Science Fiction/Fantasy stories make that mistake. Names matter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. It’s a tricky one as I like to read literature written in languages other than English (in translation!) and don’t want the names to be ‘translated’ *e.g. Miguel becomes Michal, etc.) However, I appreciate some author’s notes on pronunciation.


  4. Michael Graeme Jan 22, 2022 — 2:45 pm

    Thank you, this was fascinating. I had no idea of the literary origins of Wendy and Vanessa. I often struggle with names for characters, tending to prefer the ordinary over the exotic. To the list of famous names, I would beg to add George Smiley.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I find it like naming your children (in a much diluted way!), that it’s hard to find something good enough and right for certain characters.
      George Smiley is a good one! The sense of misnomer, the complications behind a seemingly un exciting on unthreatening exterior.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting pondering. I never really had much trouble with my characters’ names. Picked names of people I knew. Modified some. I also wrote most of my short stories with a single female name María. A sort of “Éterner féminin”.
    How have you been, Libre. Sorry I don’t visit more often. I’m a terrible “follower”.
    All well in your own world? Family and friends?
    Stay safe.


  6. A very interesting post and discussion. As soon as I saw your title I thought: “Dickens!”. He also made up names just to satirise and make fun of some of his characters. There is a “steely finality” to the name “Sherlock Holmes”, and that trait also has the name “James Bond”. I think it conveys certain authority and respect, too. I think many authors choose plain names for their lead characters only to surprise us in the end and Rowling’s Harry Potter is a prime example of that. I think Biblical names are almost always a safe bet.


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