What’s in a name?


After all, that which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.

No offense to Juliet, but I think names are important. When I start writing a story and need to name my characters, one of two things happens:

1.  Her name comes to me immediately and I can’t imagine naming her anything else.

2.  I agonize over his name, change it a dozen times while I’m writing (thank God for the “replace all” function), look up its meaning in various cultures, and when I’m halfway through the story still think I made a mistake.

So how to decide?

Some important things to take into account when choosing a name

1. The time period This is of course if you’re writing in an actual time period on earth. If you are, keep in mind there weren’t a ton of Tiffanys in 1870s Ireland.

2. The location There also aren’t a lot of of Tiffanys who are native to Mongolia.

3. Their backgrounds In my first novel my main characters are American, but their family is French, and their heritage plays a big part in the story. The names had to work in present-day America and France. I chose Isabelle, Joe (Joseph), and Tommy (Thomas).

Okay, you’ve got that down. What else?

Personal preconceived notions that may or may not make sense

For me, certain names conjure up certain traits. Tristans will always be mysterious and hot, mostly thanks to seeing this at a young age. (Now I’m tempted to go watch the whole movie again. I guess it’s been a while since I’ve had a good hysterical sob). Peters are reliable and good (I had so much trouble with a villainous Peter in Divergent for this reason!) Katies are freckly sidekicks (not sure why I think that).

I have a general predilection to J names for boys (Joe, Jimmy, James, John, Jake, Jeremy—love them all). I love names that can be shortened depending on someone’s relationship to the character (Daniel/Dan/Danny, Thomas/Tom/Tommy). I stay away from K names for girls (even though the latter half of my name is a K name). And I like M names in both genders—I love Marie, Matthew, Max (and the first half of my name is an M name).

It’s your story. Choose the name that best conjures up the character you have in your head.

Can characters have similar names?

I just renamed one of my main characters in my work-in-progress about ten times. I think I’ve settled on Jeremy James. But I already have another main character named Joe. Is that a problem?

I read somewhere to use different sounding names for your characters, which is not advice without merit. I remember starting The Stand and mixing up Lloyd and Larry a few times at first (I’m a fast reader and have a bad habit of skimming when I’m really into a story and just can’t wait to see what happens next.)

But then your characters (hopefully) develop distinct personalities, and mixing them up becomes increasingly impossible. I mean, we have Harry and Hermione and I don’t think I mixed them up once.

Some things that are less important when choosing a name?

Don’t choose a name entirely based on its origins. It can be cool if you manage to find the perfect name that also expresses a personality trait your character possesses, but don’t name your non-Hindi character Aakashdeep just because it means “sky” and your character wants to be a pilot.

Don’t change a name you like because it’s similar to something in another novel. A couple years ago, when my novel was still very much a work-in-progress, I got around to reading those Twilight books everyone was talking about, and immediately panicked, thinking I had to change Isabelle’s name because it was similar to Bella. Never mind that my character is so clearly an Isabelle. Never mind that (spoiler alert) there are no sparkly vampires or teenage werewolves in my story. I was thinking, I’m writing a YA book, and I want mine to be different. So I changed Isabelle’s name to Guinevere. And as I kept writing, I realized I didn’t know who she was any more. Something that little, like a name change, changed how I saw her in my mind. I changed it back, Twilight similarities be damned.

That being said, don’t directly copy an unusual name from a popular novel. But I didn’t even read that! you cry. Well A) You should have—as a writer, you need to keep up on the market trends and B) Agents will notice if your protagonist is named Katniss. So will readers.

The people who do it well

J. K. Rowling is a genius with names. What if Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter‘s names were switched? Or if Augustus had been named Bob? Another one I love is Sutter Keely. It somehow just conveys “partying alcoholic teen with a heart of gold”.

Turns out there’s a lot in a name. What do you think?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

4 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. Indeed a lot in a name. I usually find words with meanings and then change an alphabet or two to make it unique. Latin is one of my favourite languages to adapt names from.


    1. That’s cool. So do you write fantasy? My stories have always been very much anchored in the “real” world and so I’ve stuck with traditional names for the most part, but I’d love to write a story where I completely made them up. One I forgot to mention—I think George R.R. Martin does a fantastic job with names, especially with the mixture of traditional (Ned, Jon, Robb) and made-up (or so obscure I think they’re made up, like Daneryus, Sansa, Tyrion).


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