Names matter: choosing the right name for your characters

Names matter. Whether they are quirky and memorable, or simply a way of embodying the dullness of a character, it is important to get it right.

Some authors like Ernest Hemingway, used simple names and didn’t feel that unusual or extraordinary names were the key to an outstanding character. While others spend many hours on the subject of naming characters and places. Charles Dickens, for example, put a great deal of time into offering names for his characters that intrinsically linked them with their own characters, their place in the narrative and the overall narrative itself. Either way you choose to go, names matter. Both these authors knew this fact and chose their character names for a reason.

I have popped together a little list of a few great literary names. I am afraid there is no way my energy levels would allow me to explore ALL the great literary names that I could think of, so I shortlisted them and offer you the following. I would love to hear from you though, what are your favourite literary names, and why? And what process do you use in ‘finding’ the right name for your character? 

GREAT NAMES IN LITERATURE

1. Sherlock Holmes

(Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) 

Where does the name of this great detective come from? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle renamed his central character many times; it was initially going to be Sherrin(g)ford Hope. But this was ‘boo-booed’ by Doyle’s first wife. This choice was partially made (we think) because of his connection to a whaling ship named ‘Hope’. The story goes on from there with many little steps up, down and across until he successfully landed on ‘Sherlock Holmes’ for his hero. Mr Holmes deserves top-billing for also being one of the most interesting and unique characters to have ever been created in fiction…not just a character, Sherlock has become a cultural icon.

‘My name is Sherlock Holmes. It is my business to know what other people don’t know.’

Names_To Kill...book jackets2. Atticus Finch

(To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee)

Actually, pretty much everyone in Mockingbird has a fabulous name: Jem, Scout, Calpurnia, Boo Radley. But just for interest-sake: Atticus is an Ancient Roman name meaning ‘from Athens’. And because I know you care: my dogs are named Jem and Scout thanks to this great book…my first dog was named Rhett, a handsome Dalmatian named after a great romantic literary figure (Mr Rhett Butler)…which brings me to…

3. Scarlett O’Hara AND Rhett Butler

(Gone with the wind, Margaret Mitchell)

Margaret Mitchell came up with some dynamite names. And if you don’t agree, well quite frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!

Name_A Christmas Carol book jacket4. Ebenezer Scrooge

(A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens)
Charles Dickens was particular to even the tiniest detail his stories, which led me to believe that there would be a reason for this character name choice, surely he chose the name ‘Ebenezer Scrooge’ intentionally, aware of its layers of meaning?!

The name ‘Scrooge’ is a variation of the verb ‘to scrouge’ or ‘to scruze’ – meaning to squeeze or press…which makes sense when you read this description of the character from the book:

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!

The name ‘Ebenezer’ is not original to the English language, it is an anglicised version of a Hebrew name – which itself is composed of two Hebrew words. It is a combination of the word for stone (eben) and the word for helper (‘ezer). Thus, an ebenezer would have been a stone that offered some sort of assistance.

5. Harry Potter, Severus Snape, Albus Dumbledore, Hemione Granger, Ron Weasley…

(Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling)

JK really knows how to name her characters (who could forget Dobby?…). Not to mention the things she names: Hogwarts Express, muggles… there is a whole story behind these names I am sure. But I will leave it to you to explore this one.

6. Lolita

(Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov)

Names_Lolita Quote

Entirely creepy. But, enough said.

7. Willy Wonka…Veruca Salt…Augustus Gloop…Arthur Slugworth…Oompa Loompas!!

(Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl)

Do I really need to say more? Talking of an imaginative take on character names…

8. Oliver Twist

(Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens)

Yet another wonderful creation, thank you Mr Dickens for some truly legendary names! Oliver is given his name by Mr Bumble, a parish authority – named according to an alphabetical system…because it was time for a ‘T’.

Names_Gatsby Quote9. Jay Gatsby

(The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald)

Actually, the character’s ‘real’ name is James Gatz – but he retitled himself Jay Gatsby in order to reinvent himself from
a poor man to what he becomes – and also to impress ‘the girl’!

10. Katniss Everdeen

(The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collines)

The character’s first name comes from a plant called sagittaria (a tuber plant usually found in water). The root of this plant can be eaten, as Katniss does in the book. Her father tells her: ‘As long as you can find yourself, you’ll never starve.’ The plant also shares its name with a constellation in the Zodiac called Sagittarius, or ‘The Archer’, which may also reference Katniss’s skills in archery. Her last name comes from Bathsheba Everdene, the central character in Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. According to Collins, ‘The two are very
different, but both struggle with knowing their hearts’.

Names_Pippi book11. Pippy Longstocking

(Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren)

Pippi Longstocking was named by the author’s
nine-year-old daughter (full name: Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Ephraim’s Daughter Longstocking) – don’t kids just say the darndest things?!

12. Lucy Pevensie, Mr Tumnus, Eustace Scrubb, Reepicheep, Aslan…

(The Chronicles of Narnia series, C.S. Lewis)

Names_Narnia book jacketLike Harry Potter, this book was brought alive
in our imaginations through all the details that the author’s thought to imagine up – and the names
of the characters and places were integral to this.

Names_Narnia audio books

These are the actual tapes that we would listen to!

Narnia was a thing of my childhood; we had every book as an audio book and every family road trip was narrated by our beloved tapes. We would listen to them as we drove through the Australian outback. We’d often make a point of leaving before the light had struck the land, which made the stories and the characters somehow seem even more magical. I have very happy memories of these roadtrips – and my parents must have been patting themselves on their back for finding something that kept us quiet and happy for so long!

13. Mr Darcy

(Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen)

How could anyone forget Mr Darcy? It is possibly the ultimate Jane Austen hero name and screams strong, broody and handsome! The name ‘Darcy’ has also managed to transcend romantic literature; in 2010 a protein sex pheromone in male mouse urine, that is sexually attractive to female mice, was named Darcin in honour of the character.

Names_Darcy definition Names_Waiting for Mr Darcy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Kit Carstairs

Kit Carstairs has background in book and magazine publishing, academic research, marketing and broadcasting. She has almost a decade of experience working with a wide variety of content including: fiction (adult and children’s), general non-fiction (craft, gardening, home improvement, general DIY, food titles, natural history, general reference, photography) as well as working with corporate (marketing and sales material, business reviews and papers) and academic content (research publications and thesis). Having worked both as a freelance editor and as an in-house editor and project manager in publishing, Kit has a comprehensive understanding of the importance of content development and the need for authors to be proactive in developing manuscripts that represent their full potential. As well as providing manuscript assessments Kit is also able to offer her editing and proofing services (POA) as well as fast and accurate transcribing services (POA). Contact Kit to discuss these services in more detail. Kit lives and works in the inspirational surroundings of the Blue Mountains, in Australia's New South Wales.

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