What’s in a (Character) Name?


There are few things I love more in writing than naming characters. I love it so much and am so determined to get it right that I can spend weeks thumbing through my baby name books. I have four of them and when I picked the up cheap in a second-hand store, I think I may have unintentionally given my parents and grandparents the wrong idea. Oops!

But, no, of course their sole purpose was to assist me in searching out the most intriguing character names for my various writing efforts. I haven’t always been successful. During my second year of studying for an Advanced Diploma in Professional Writing & Editing, my Novel classmates had no compunction in informing me that the name of my main character in the manuscript we were all reviewing DID NOT WORK. No wriggle room. In no uncertain terms. My main character’s name was Michaela but all her friends and family referred to her by her nickname, Mike. There was a lot of confusion amongst readers and both the name and the nickname were consigned to history.


Character Names That Contribute to Plot

Sometimes a character name can inadvertently contribute to the plot. In my unpublished novel Black Spot, the main character is named Livia. She was so named because a previous incarnation of the character lived while everyone around her was dying from some unknown epidemic. Even though that plot died a natural death (no pun intended), I kept the name because I liked it. And about half way through writing Black Spot, I realised it would make a nice plot point if the amnesiac Livia suddenly remembered that her full name was actually Olivia. She was then overcome with anger about why nobody ever thought to tell her such a crucial piece of information, especially for someone who had lost all sense of identity and was working hard to rebuild it.


Character Names Inspired by People You Know and Love

I quite often use the names of people I know to name characters. In my debut novel, Enemies Closer, the pages are littered with references to people I was working with at the time including Tom Agland (a combination of two people), Dr Jie Gao (the actual name of the woman I sat next to for three years and who did the Mandarin translations for the book) and Li Tiao Moon (a Chinese version of Lidia Mooney, who sat on the other side of me at the same job). Friends and family seem to enjoy the thrill of seeing their namesake in a book and it certainly cuts down the time spent naming characters when you have a book with a lot of characters to name.

More recently, I have been using last names only. In Trine, my currently incomplete literary crime novel, the main character had her name changed to protect her identity but the new name hadn’t been her choice and she didn’t particularly like it. A friend of mine frequently complained about how much she had hated her maiden name and that she’d been glad to change it when she got married. Which is how Prudence Butters got her last name.

A doctor in the same book who only appears in two scenes also needed a last name and ended up getting two: a hyphenated concoction that also related to a friend pre- and post-marriage. I’d worked with this friend and initially knew her by her maiden name but when she got married and changed jobs in relatively quick succession, I often had to reference her by both names to ensure others knew who I was talking about. Thus, Dr Chelsea Ingram-Ashby was so christened.


Character Names Inspired by People You Know and Hate

Writing fiction is a great way to release pent up emotions about people who have done you wrong without directly incurring the wrath of those people. Of course, there is an art to naming characters based on these people. Done well, those inspiring you will never know the characters were named after them. (Unless, of course, you want to provoke a reaction. In that case, go crazy but be prepared for the recriminations and law suits.)

This might come as something of a surprise but I don’t always name villains or bad people after people I don’t like. I try to find the balance between getting my revenge and using a comparatively insignificant character to do it (usually someone feeble and incompetent). That way, if those real life inspirations do realise what I’m doing, they also realise how unimportant they are in the grand scheme of the universes I am creating.


Character Names with Deeper Meanings

I wrote eleven episodes of a speculative television show before I decided to focus on writing novels. The concept for the show was the wife and six daughters of a doctor coping with his murder. The wife was a classically educated woman, a real intellectual, so I thought it made sense that she would name her daughters unusual and creative names with some deep thought behind them. It also allowed me to do a lot of research into the characters and name them according to their personalities. The results were as follows:

Daughter #1: Minerva – Minerva was the eldest and although she wasn’t supposed to be aware of it, she knew she wasn’t the biological child of the man she had called father her whole life. In Roman mythology, Minerva is the daughter of Jupiter and sprang full formed from her father’s head.

Daughter #2: Salome – Salome was actually the eldest biological daughter of the murdered doctor and Minerva envied her this “perfection”. Salome in Hebrew means “the perfect woman”.

Daughter #3: Dahlia – Dahlia was the biological child of neither the wife or the doctor and had been adopted when she was very young. She knew nothing about her biological parents, didn’t want to know, and was a bit of a mystery herself. So I named her after the infamous Black Dahlia murder case. Elizabeth Short was murdered and mutilated and more than 50 people have confessed to the crime, although most have now been eliminated as genuine suspects. The case has never been solved.

Daughter #4: Jolie – the six sisters were based very loosely on me and my five sisters and my sister who corresponded with Daughter #4 like Angelina Jolie and had a passing resemblance. It’s also a French word that means “pretty” and a similar French word “joli” has multiple translations including “nice”, “lovely” and “good” and that really summed up this social activist character.

Daughter #5: Calista – Calista in the story was twelve years old, a junior basketballer who was very good for her age and very tall for her age, as well as being very blonde. Alfred Tennyson wrote a poem called “A Dream of Fair Women” in which he described a woman as “a daughter of the gods, divinely tall and most divinely fair”. Calista means “fairest, most beautiful” and it seemed like a good match.

Daughter #6: Valentina – Valentina was named after Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. I imagined that the mother would also be the type who would want to inspire her daughters to aim for great things. Also being the youngest daughter, only four years of age, Valentina’s character hadn’t fully formed yet so I had to think of what she might achieve, rather than who she had already become. Simple as that.


Helping Others Name Their Characters

As a sometimes editor and reading friend, there are also times when I help other writers name their characters. The best example of this was an action adventure book a friend of mine wrote, which would go on to become his debut novel. He had named his main character Ethan. Unfortunately, my first thought was this: if I was asked to come up with the first Ethan I could think of in an action adventure context, every time the image that appeared in my mind was Tom Cruise playing Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible movies. No matter how good my friend’s book was, his character was never going to displace Ethan Hunt as the most famous Ethan in a literary or film character context.

I suggested, humbly, that Lachlan might be a better option. Firstly, I couldn’t think of any other Lachlans deeply entrenched in my mind in relation to action adventure films or books. Secondly, Lachlan variously means “warlike” and “from the land of the lakes” and as the character was a former navy diver, it seemed appropriate. And thirdly, Lachlan and Ethan flowed rhythmically in the same way so it wasn’t too much of a change (like say starting with Joe and moving to Vikram would be).


* * * * *


I know I prefaced this blog post with the statement that there are few things in writing I enjoy more than naming characters (all of the fun of babies without any of the trauma of labour) and I have no doubt that the subsequent and seemingly never-ending ramblings have more than adequately demonstrated it. My apologies. But some things should be self-evident. After all, if I didn’t enjoy writing and all its component parts so much, I’m sure I wouldn’t spend nearly as much time doing it as I currently do.

But enough about me! What’s your favourite part about writing?


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