Saturday, August 4, 2012

What's in a name?

Hi Everyone!

     My name is Jolene and I’m excited to be a new contributor to this awesome site. I like to read, write, and eat copious amounts of cheese. Now that we’re all friends… my post.

      Someone recently asked me about names in literature and more specifically, if names were really that important in books. He then went on and asked me how I name the characters that I write. 

      If The Great Gatsby has taught us anything, just as the saying "the clothing makes the man", the name makes the character. Developing a good name for those in your novel, in my opinion, is just as critical as setting the scene or creating an interesting plot. Why? It defines the character.Your character is the vehicle that drives your plot. Your reader emotionally attaches themselves to your character, rooting for their success, and wanting to devour every page of that journey. So why not take a few extra moments and do your characters justice? Besides, names can help you reveal where that person hails from, what kind of background they have, what time period they were born in, etc. Your characters will not feel real if they have a name that doesn't fit them.

    Keep in mind, just as we all do, your reader will immediately judge a character by the name the first time they read them, drawing from life experiences or other reads. It doesn't mean that a reader's perception can't be changed, but the initial perception will be there. Take the name Brittany. What do you imagine? Are you picturing a blond hair, blue eyed, head cheerleader? Are you envisioning a depressed exchange student with a love of turtlenecks? I bet I know the answer. Or what about the name Myrtle. Is she a quiet, library geek from the 1950's or is she the loud team captain of a co-ed, dodgeball team? There's no right answer per say... but it was my Grandmother's name and she was born in the 1950's. :)

Check out this hilarious video from one of my favorite authors Jackson Pearce, where she talks about naming characters and about Chad (you'll see). 

A few names in literature that I love:

Harry Potter: I love this name. It is incredibly boring and normal. Harry sounds like a normal guy, leaving one to believe that finding out you're a wizard and being accepted to Hogwarts could happen to any Joe Shmoe. I also thought it interesting that the name Harry supposedly means "home-ruler". Well done, J.K. Rowling, well done.

Daisy Buchanan: I absolutely love this name from The Great Gatsby. Daisy, much like the actual flower, is desirable in appearance. Daisy is pretty but weak. Just like daisies attract bees, Daisy attracts the men in this story. A simple analysis but I see what Fitzgerald was going for here.

If you’re stuck and you need ideas for your writing:

1. Baby name websites are helpful. I know that a lot of them even have lists of names. I’ve come across lists like “Popular girl names” and “Indie boy names” and some of them I’ve actually ended up using. Some sites you may want to check out are:   and   

2. Also, it can be as simple as googling. That's right. I said it. Sometimes I just type into google something like "names that mean warrior", and boom, a zillion results pop up from heritage websites and other places where people have already asked that question. Now obviously, this is the part where I encourage you to double check anything you read for accuracy, but I'm sure you know that. 

3. Personal: Something that I have always loved doing since I was little, and perhaps because I'm a little odd, is walking through cemeteries. I've lived close enough to where my Grandfather is buried that I've visited frequently growing up and still do. I love graveyards. I love the headstones, ambiance, and quiet. But what I love the most is perusing the aisles, and reading the names. Part of me feels like I'm doing my part to make sure that these people haven't been forgotten. And the other part of me loves the interesting, forgotten, or unique names that come out. I even use it as a writing exercise. I've walked the stones with friends before, reading the names and guessing what type of person they were or what type of character would have the same name. It gets your mind going and I've come up with more stories and people this way, than any other way.

I leave you with these questions:
What do you think about the significance of names? Are there any, in particular that you love or hate? Some that you think are overused? I would love to hear from you in the comments below! :)

Picture credit: found HERE
Currently reading: Behind the Bookcase by Mark Steensland  

Currently listening to: Paint it, Black by The Rolling Stones 


  1. I believe names are extremely important especially in writing. As a writer you are painting a picture of a character that the reader does not have the luxury of seeing ;-) the name is part of that picture. When I think Harry I see Potter! As for overusing names, just like naming children there are fads of popular names. However if you think the name is who your character is then stick with it!

    1. Thanks for posting Christina! I agree with you. I've struggled with naming characters something just because it was popular. At the end of the day, if I felt that it was truly their name, I left it. But you're right, a name paints a picture. And it's up to you as an author to paint it. And that starts with choosing the right brush / name.

  2. Love the video! I DO know a Chad and...she's not far off her assumption:)

    1. Haha, thank you! I loved the video too! I couldn't believe how wildly accurate "Chad" was. (Sorry Chads of the world).

  3. I think you're really on to something. The name is extremely important- think about how annoyed people got when the first Harry Potter movie came out and they finally learned how to pronounce "hermione." there's an emotional connection- people firm the characters in their heads and the name dictates a lot about what you see. --Stephanie

  4. Hi Stephanie! Thank you for commenting. You're absolutely right on, here. People do form character perceptions when they're reading and they hear a name.

    You made me laugh with the whole Hermione thing, because I remember it too! :) I was walking out of the theater to people grumbling about, "How could it be Hermione? I've been saying it Herm-E-on. I just don't like Hermione as much." That was when I realized how important names were.

  5. I absolutely love naming characters. For me, I don't necessarily need them to have significance, but I definitely hate when I feel a name doesn't "fit." More though, I hate when a name has been loaded with super obvious significance, like "Mary Leftallaloneman." There's a YA book I absolutely love but many of the names have super obvious "significance" and it's the only thing that diminishes it for me.

    I do think it's cool when the meanings of names work nicely into the characters, but more often than not, I probably won't notice it; etymologies aren't my super-strong suit ;) For me, I write so much that I just try really hard to A) give names that I think either physically fit the characters or give some hint to their backgrounds, and B) use names I haven't used in other mss, so that each name really has an individual significance to me as well as a unique mental picture attached. Was shocked to discover recently that I used a name in two different mss, but then again, one of them was supposed to be a very tiny part in his ms, until he just wouldn't shut up! If that ms weren't already on sub, though, I would totally go ahead and change it.