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3 Reasons That Character Names Matter

March 4, 2021

I’ve noticed a growing and concerning trend among writers when they’re developing a cast of characters. In an effort to make a protagonist memorable, they slap on a unique, edgy, and complex moniker and call it a day. The conviction that names carry more significance than just a pretty string of letters has been lost.

 

In the Garden of Eden, the first task God gave to man was naming the animals. Adam joined God in an act of sub-creation, treating each animal as special and endowing it with an identity. As storytellers, we face a similar responsibility every time we birth new characters, and the names we use (or invent) have a lasting impact on how readers view them. Here’s why.

 

1. Names Connect Authors to Their Characters

Somewhere in the process of creating a character, she’ll stop being a collection of impressions and morph into a three-dimensional being. You work tirelessly for this moment, because once you fully understand her, describing her thoughts and actions in various situations becomes much easier. A name provides a foundation upon which to build the rest of her personality, and if you fail to choose one that fits, you may struggle to bring her to life.

 

The film The Man Who Invented Christmas shows Charles Dickens deep in the throes of crafting his timeless masterpiece, A Christmas Carol. In one of the most engaging scenes, he’s pacing the floor, trying to concoct a name for his protagonist, and he remarks to his maid, “Get the name right, and then, if you’re lucky, the character will appear.” The instant that Scrooge slips from his mouth, the character dramatically enters the room, and Dickens says, “Mr. Scrooge, how delightful to meet you, sir.”

 

While you can’t expect this phenomenon to happen in the real world, it mirrors a truth that many authors experience. Finding the right name for a character can mean the difference between a flat, faceless silhouette and a vibrant individual. When I started sketching out the idea for my current novel, I had trouble getting inside my male protagonist’s mind. I wasn’t sure why until I realized I didn’t know his whole name. Once I settled on a suitable one, he became tangible.

 

But how do you determine whether a particular name complements a character or not? Run it through these checkpoints:

 

  • Research the name’s etymology, either through baby name books or the internet.
  • Consider the name’s past. For example, people usually avoid the name Adolph even though it was once fairly popular.
  • Ask yourself how the name makes you feel or what images it pops into your head.
  • If you picked the name at whim, brainstorm a list of possibilities instead, and see whether any of those match the character’s personality better.

Basically, focus on who you want the character to be—her thought patterns, worldview, likes and dislikes, and faults and virtues. Does her name reflect all of that? If it does, then you’ve jump-started a compelling character.

 

2. Names Reveal Who Characters Are

A character’s name offers the first clue to who she is, not only for the author but also for the audience. Before readers see her interact with her surroundings, obstacles, and other characters, they learn her name, which communicates a huge amount of information in a small package. Names, after all, have meanings. Whether readers are aware of it or not, they’ll interpret characters according to those connotations.

 

The effect is twofold. First, every name comes with a history, both in fiction and reality. Readers might be unable to specify why John is different from Manuel, but they assume facts about John that they won’t about Manuel, and vice versa. Second, a name’s inherent symbolism can influence the character who bears it. The original meaning of a name may seem irrelevant, but it isn’t. It deepens the character and mimics God’s design.

 

In the biblical narrative, names were intertwined with purpose. Often, when a person underwent a transformation, God changed his name as a sign of that renewal. Abram (“high father”) became Abraham (“father of many”), Jacob (“supplanter”) became Israel (“God contends”), Simon (“he has heard”) became Peter (“stone”), and Saul (“asked for”) became Paul (“humble”).

 

God named and renamed people to indicate the paths they’d be traveling. Writers, however, spend vast amounts of time stressing about their characters’ quirks, preferences, and habits. But a character isn’t just a composition of details and a Myers-Briggs personality type. She has a soul. And the right name can put it on display.

 

Imagine how your target audience might perceive the names you’ve assigned to your characters. What cultures, attitudes, and lifestyles do the names convey in general, and why? Whichever names you decide on, you’ll shape your characters and speak to your audience simultaneously.

 

3. Names Can Either Enhance a Story or Hinder It

Every writer dreams of making their characters so compelling that readers remember them long after they’ve returned the book to their shelves. Attaching a memorable name to a memorable character seems natural—even mandatory. But a complicated, unique name won’t necessarily guarantee that the character stands out.

 

While bizarre names are most prominent in fantasy, they can appear in almost any genre. The more odd names you include, the more likely they’ll blur together and become a stumbling block for readers. Names with strange spellings require extra mental effort to pronounce and keep track of. For instance, Maryse from The Mortal Instruments series could be pronounced Mare-riss, Mar-eye-z, Mary-sa, Mah-reese, or Mah-riss-a. And how are readers supposed to know which? Without guidance, the name becomes a distracting guessing game. Even if you don’t care whether readers’ pronunciation is correct or not, they shouldn’t have to waste time wrestling over it.

 

Though I’ve cited an extreme example involving a minor side character, a name should always add to, not detract from, your story. Complexity won’t raise a name’s value. Forcing syllables together or inserting Ys, Zs, and Vs may look cool on the page, but it only frustrates readers.

 

Tolkien is famous for the myriad of names he coined for Lord of the Rings. At first glance, his tactics might seem to refute my point—but the opposite is actually true. Tolkien was a linguist who understood the mechanics and evolution of language. So, while a large percent of his character names are entirely original, each one follows logical patterns of phonetics and spelling. You can avoid problematic names by doing the same.

 

Tolkien represents a golden standard of name creation, especially for fantasy. But his approach isn’t unreachable; it just requires time and practice. If you want a distinct name for your character, aim to make it as accessible as possible. Listen to how it sounds. Simplify the spelling. Readers will thank you.

 

Small but Mighty

Characters are the heartbeat of your story, and when they resonate with readers, what happens to them almost becomes inconsequential. Who they are determines why you’re writing the story, and the first step in giving them breath is finding the right names.

 

Pulling names at random from your brain (or a hat) skips over arguably the most crucial part of character creation. When you take time to be intentional with names, you’re emulating the same attention to detail as your Creator. And whether readers are fully conscious of it or not, they’ll sense the additional layer of authenticity.

10 Comments

  1. Joelle Stone

    AHA!! SOMEONE ELSE NOTICED THE PROBLEM!!

    I’ve gotta say that names are my favorite part of any character. Okay, maybe not FAVORITE, but they’re high on the list. I love names. In Andrew Peterson’s thrilling series The Wingfeather Saga, he had a host of names that, if you dig into them, open up new meanings. Kalmar is the name of a castle in Sweden. Ronchy (actually spelled raunchy) is a real word. Ever noticed how “Tumnus” is in the Wingfeather family tree?

    Bottom line: names are awesome.

    Thank you for the article, Rose!

    Reply
    • Rose Sheffler

      You’re very welcome!

  2. J. S. Clingman

    Wow, I never really thought about this, but it makes so much sense! Totally have to apply this. Thank you, Rose. 🙂

    Reply
    • Rose Sheffler

      I hope it opens up a new perspective for you and makes your stories even stronger. Godspeed!

  3. Emily

    I’m happy to see an article like this on Story Embers! I thought you explained Tolkien’s reasons for his fantasy names very well.

    Reply
    • Rose Sheffler

      I’m glad you found it. I’ve always admired (and been a little envious of) Tolkien’s ability to synthesize names.

  4. Riah Black

    Can I just say….FINALLY SOMEONE ELSE HAS SPOKEN!!

    I have always believed that names are a vital part of creating a character, but have never found anyone who thought the same until now. I agree 100% with this article.

    Reply
    • RB

      I very much believe this too! One of my friends gets amusingly annoyed when I try to name characters with her XD But if the name isn’t right, the character isn’t right!

    • Rose Sheffler

      Riah, I’m so glad to find a kindred spirit! This name thing has ALWAYS bothered me and I’m just lucky enough to have a great platform to express my own convictions. Godspeed in your writing.

  5. Brian Stansell

    Hi Rose!

    You’ve done it again! Another stellar article addressing a topic I have wanted to hear from other writers about!

    Do you use any particular “Names” sites to find a character’s moniker?
    If I use a biblical character’s name, I like to use the Blue Letter Bible and the Strong’s Lookup within it to find what the name means and its etymology.

    I also use the “meaning-of-names.com” website, which allows searching by the “meaning” to find suitable choices.

    I heard a Christian Biblical Scholar, Chuck Missler (now in Heaven) who pointed out a mystery hidden in the Genesis 5 lineage from Adam – Seth – etc. to Noah. It is pretty amazing the way God does deliberate things through history to reveal His master plans.

    Since this topic is on point, I thought I’d share that mystery here.

    In ancient times, people traditionally gave their children names that were connected to something that characterized the circumstances or something meaningful about their child’s birth.
    You may remember, a few years ago there was a book published called The Prayer of Jabez. (1 Chronicles 4:9-10) Jabez’s name literally meant “sorrow”. This was a common ancient practice.

    Some of the difficulty finding the original means of names has to do with finding the root components of the original names in the original language, but some of the words have recognizable equivalents even in English.

    So beginning with Adam, what did these names actually mean?
    With a good biblical lexicon, one can easily find out.

    Adam means “Man”
    Seth means “Appointed” – Eve actually gives him the name in Genesis 4:25
    [Gen 4:25 KJV] 25 And Adam knew his wife again; and she bare a son, and called his name Seth: For God, [said she], hath appointed me another seed instead of Abel, whom Cain slew.

    Enosh means “Mortal or Frail and Miserable” Genesis 4:26 – The word can mean Seth’s son as well, but its root is the word anash which means “to be incurable, used of a wound, grief, woe, sickness or wickedness” all alluding to mortality.

    Kenan means “Sorrow, dirge or elegy” from the verb קונן (qonen), to chant a dirge (Ezekiel 27:32, 1 Samuel 1:17), from the noun קינה (qina), lamentation or sad poem which is sung (Jeremiah 7:19, Ezekiel 2:10). That way the name Kenan means Lamenter, but with the emphasis on the composition rather than the actual lamenting. (Link) You can recognize the English word “keening” in this name.

    Mahalalel means “Blessed God” Any Hebrew word containing the component “El” short for “Elohim” almost always has “God” in its meaning. You may also recognize the root “Halalel” which is the source of the word “Hallelujah” meaning “Bless Jehovah”.

    Jared or Yered means “shall descend” His timeline and birth seems to coincide with the mysterious event of Genesis 6:1-2

    Enoch means “Teacher or Teaching” The root חנך (hnk) deals with the beginning of discernment, which is the beginning of wisdom. he was the first of 4 generations of preachers, and the earliest recorded prophet, whose prophecy can be found in the NT book of Jude 1:14-15, amazingly dealing with the Second Coming of Christ.

    Methuselah was born at the time in which Enoch was recorded to have walked with God (Gen. 5:22). Apparently, Enoch received a warning from God to the wicked people of his time, when his son was born. The name means “His Death Shall Bring” (Link) The root מות (mut) for the first part and translates the whole name with When He Is Dead It Shall Be Sent. The second root from shalach, which means “to bring,” This man’s death occurred in the very year that the Flood came (circa 2348 B.C.)

    Lamech means “the despairing or the lamenting” The particle ל (le) means to or onto and may describe a physical or mental motion toward or a behavioral effort and the verb מכך (makak) means to descend, to bring low or to humiliate.

    Noah means “Rest or Comfort” Scripture gives us the meaning of his name. [Gen 5:29 KJV] 29 And he called his name Noah, saying, This [same] shall comfort us concerning our work and toil of our hands, because of the ground which the LORD hath cursed.
    ——————————————————-

    Now let me show you something incredible. Remember the Sethite line is the lineage of Jesus (Luke 3) from Adam.

    Put the meanings together and you can see a Prophecy of Jesus and His Mission.

    Prophecy of the names’ meanings: Man Is Appointed Mortal Sorrow, [but] The Blessed God, Shall come down Teaching [that] His death shall bring the Despairing Comfort.

    The very mission of Jesus’s coming was to die sacrificially on the cross to bring comfort to those in despair.

    God Bless!

    Brian Stansell
    Blog Site: https://excavatia.wordpress.com/

    Reply

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