A Good Name is Hard to Find: Coming up with the Right Name for Your Character
Finding the perfect name for the main character of a story can be a daunting task.
Sometimes a good name comes right away. It sounds right and fits the character like a tailored suit. Other times, nothing we come up seems to connect. We may go through an entire carousel of names before we land on one that gets the job done. We don’t love it, but it gets the job done.
A great character name, like coming up with a perfect title for a story, is hard to find.
Names have incredible significance. We see this from the beginning, and by beginning, I mean, “in the beginning.” In the first chapters of the Bible, God called the first man and woman by name. Soon after, He tasked Adam with coming up with names for the animals in creation. Later, God’s people, the children of Israel, were called by His name.
Names identify, give meaning, and establish or define relationship.
Any storyteller who cares enough to give his character a name, imparts a bit of his own heart into that character. A named character reminds us as readers that we are reading about a person and hopefully someone we can sympathize for or, on the flipside, despise.
If you’ve read my piece on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, you’ll know that I commend the ways the writers make the genetically identical and often faceless clones unique and sympathetic to the audience. Names, particularly nicknames, play a huge role in this. Where the clones’ “creators” identify them by number, the individual clones develop personality (and their own identity) through inherited or self-created nicknames.
Some names work because they sound right. Merriadoc Brandybuck (The Lord of the Rings) is the kind of jovial, agrarian name we’d expect for a Hobbit. Severus Snape (Harry Potter) or August Gloop (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) tell us everything we need to know about their respective characters before we ever meet them.
Authors should avoid too many similar sounding names to help the reader distinguish characters from each other. JRR Tolkien partially fails in this regard with the company of dwarves in The Hobbit with names like Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Dwalin, Balin, Fili, Kili, Oin, Gloin, Dori, Nori, and Ori filling out the cast. However, considering that most of the Dwarves of Erebor act as one unit and rarely have featured, individual scenes, similar sounding names are okay.
Though we as writers may have a reason for giving a character a certain name, a good name should also have an origin within the story. It will connect the reader to a specific family, culture, community, history, or geography in that world. Fantasy writers can be the masters of this, taking time to create their own phonology of names for their respective worlds.
For example, a name like Jon Snow reveals a much different history and heritage than someone with a name like Daenerys Targaryen (A Song of Fire and Ice).
Skywalker is a name that links Luke to his father (Anakin Skywalker) before that name was changed to Darth Vader when he turned to the dark side. The name Skywalker, therein, has history, meaning, and a reputation across the galaxy.
Han Solo, on the other hand, doesn’t have a people or family history. We learn in Solo: A Star Wars story that he is truly a rogue and is only given the name “Solo” by his Imperial recruiters.
In Louis Sachar’s Holes, we also meet a character named Stanley Yelnats who has a unique relationship with the family history of his name.
Of course, there is nothing unique about the name Stanley. However, the narrator tells us that, “Stanley’s father was also name Stanley Yelnats. Stanley’s father’s full name was Stanley Yelnats III. Our Stanley is Stanley Yelnats IV.”
Furthermore, we learn that those named Stanley Yelnats have been historically unlucky, even cursed.
So why would the Yelnats family continue to name their sons Stanley? It’s because, “everyone in his [Stanley’s] family had always liked the fact that ‘Stanley Yelnats’ was spelled the same frontward and backward. So they kept naming their sons Stanley.”
Just from the name and a bit of narrative exposition, we get the sense that the Yelnats family is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit odd.
On top of being socially awkward and the inheritor of familial bad luck, Stanley has a name that fits the kind of unlikely, goofy, yet loveable hero we’re going to follow for the rest of this story.
Of course, not every character has or needs a memorable name. Sometimes the author can take a nameless approach to either their protagonist or villain, and if done right, it too can be remarkably effective.
In Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, we never learn the narrator’s real name. She’s simply called Mrs. DeWinter, taking on the name of her new husband. In this way, her individuality is overshadowed by her husband and the inescapable, looming presence of Maxime DeWinter’s past wife, Rebecca, the “mad woman in the attic.” But that’s the point. =
Monsters and villains often don’t get names either, and in some ways that makes them less sympathetic, less human, and even more mysterious or terrifying.
The shark (Jaws), the predator (Predator), the alien (Alien), and even unnamed man (Bambi) are terrifying enough without a name.
The Penguin, The Riddler, and Two-Face are iconic Batman villains, but even they have interesting birth names in Oswald Cobblepot, Edward Nygma, and Harvey Dent. However, there is only one unnamed Joker of Gotham.
An unnamed character can further be used by the author to represent a greater archetype. This is what we find in Holes with The Warden. By choosing not to give The Warden a specific name, Sachar creates a nameless cruelty to the character. He represents a universal authoritarianism that most children, especially the heroes of this story, loathe and fear.
Certainly, the heroes of the Harry Potter series can relate.
In Harry Potter, those who fear Lord Voldemort refuse to call him by name, referring to him instead as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Those who wish to strip Voldemort of his power aren’t afraid to call him what he is. And those who really want to go on the offensive, namely Dumbledore, call Lord Voldemort by his birthname: Tom Riddle.
Characters may be referred to by multiple names.
In The Lord of the Rings, Aragon goes by the name Strider while in the wild and Elessar amongst the Elves. Similarly, the apostle Paul used his Hebrew name Saul amongst the Jews and Greek name Paul when ministering to the Gentiles. Different names say as much about the character as the relationship they share with those who use them.
Sometimes a character’s name will change over the course of the story.
In the Bible, God changed the names of Abram and Jacob to Abraham and Israel to reflect the new covenant nature of their relationship.
In the book of Ruth, Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi asked to be called Mara (meaning bitter) after losing her husband and sons.
Hebrew exiles like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah had their birth names changed to Babylonian names in an attempt to purge them of their Hebrew heritage.
And of course, Anakin Skywalker’s had his name changed to Darth Vader, signaling his turn to the dark side.
And then there is the matter of nicknames.
Nicknames, in many ways, can be even more important and effective than actual names in that they reveal how other characters in the story perceive each other.
In A Song of Fire and Ice, Petyr Baelish is nicknamed Littlefinger as a boy for being small in stature and for heralding from a tiny peninsula in a region known as The Fingers. Ironically, Littlefinger keeps the name into his adult years as a reminder of how far he’s risen on the political totem pole of Westeros.
Littlefinger’s political rival, Varys, is called The Spider for being the master of whispers and secrets in the realm.
Nicknames can be given like badges of honor for heroic deeds or memorable acts.
In A Song of Fire and Ice, Prince Oberyn Martell is called The Red Viper of Dorne for his use of poisons and unique fighting prowess.
In The Hobbit, the dwarf prince Thorin becomes a legend amongst the dwarves after the famed battle of Azanulzibar, where he defeated the goblin ranks using nothing but an oaken branch for a shield. From then on, he is known as Thorin Oakenshield.
In David Ayer’s WW2 tank drama, Fury, the young Norman is given the nickname “Machine” after mowing down an entire foxhole of Nazi soldiers. Gaining a nickname gives Norman a new identity and signifies belonging and acceptance into the group.
I’d like to add, thanks to a great observation made by my friend Sean, that not all nicknames are affirming. In fact, many nicknames are more derogatory in nature and intended to chide characters for attributes they’d rather not be linked to.
Hector Zeroni in Holes is given the nickname Zero, “because there’s nothing inside his head.” In fact, many of the prison nicknames of Camp Green Lake are less than inspiring (Barf Bag, X-Ray, Armpit, and Zig Zag).
In Game of Thrones, the dwarf Tyrion Lannister is referred to as “The Imp.” Likewise, bastards of Westeros are denied their father’s name, branded instead with a universally understood bastard surname such as Snow, Sand, or Rivers, depending on their region of birth. It is a reminder to them and everyone who they really are.
On the other hand, characters like Bufford “Mad Dog” Tanen (Back to the Future: Part 3), Harvey “Two Face” Dent (The Dark Knight), and Jaime Lannister, the “Oathbreaker” and “Kingslayer”, have nicknames they despise because they expose their reputation amongst their peers (section added on 11/9/21).
Sometimes, nicknames can come from physical traits, hobbies, or personality quirks. In A Song of Fire and Ice, both brothers of House Clegane are renowned for their size and ferocity. They are called The Mountain and The Hound respectively.
The name Needles is given to a character in Jason Reynold’s When I Was The Greatest for his proclivity for knitting, Yeah Yeah from The Sandlot earns his name from his famous catchphrase, and Holes’ Clyde Livingston, the famous basketball player, is called Sweet Feet for his “sweet smelling” feet.
Similarly, Jesus nicknamed disciples James and John “The Sons of Thunder” as a way of chastising them for their hot tempers and impulsive behavior.
In Holes, all of the inmates of Camp Green Lake prefer their somewhat demeaning nicknames over their actual names, much to the chagrin of the adults in charge. While they may be forced to dig holes all day for The Warden, the use of nicknames becomes our heroes’ act of defiance and way of establishing a new community amongst themselves, one that cannot be controlled or defined from the outside.
Names and nicknames can reveal what others see in a character but also expose how characters view themselves.
In Holes, Stanley realizes that he’s finally become part of the group when he is given the nickname “Caveman.” The nickname itself isn’t as meaningful as what it represents: acceptance, something Stanley has been longing for all his life. Once he is given a nickname, Stanley begins to see himself as more than just unlucky or cursed. He finally gains the confidence to act and take risks.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, Aragorn rejects his crown and claim to the throne, choosing instead to live in exile as a ranger who goes by the name Strider. In his own journey, however, Aragorn slowly begins to accept his call to leadership and rightful place as king of Gondor. There is an enormous shift in the character when he finally allows himself to be called Aragorn, his kingly, Dunedain name, as opposed to Strider, his Ranger name.
Whenever a character’s name changes, pay attention. This is often a sign from the author that something has changed in the character as well.
In Holes, Zero’s nickname reverts back to Hector once he has finally left Camp Green Lake. Only after Hector is “free” and learned to see himself as more than just another zero in the system can he ditch his prison nickname and become Hector Zeroni for the first time.
Both names and nicknames have meaning. A good name will help define and develop a character as much as the events of the story. It can signify transformation or change. Names and nicknames can be given; both can be kept or abandoned.
In any case, the process of finding the right name for a character can be a daunting challenge. However, while this process may be filled with much research, frustration, trial and error, finding good, meaningful, and memorable names for your characters is often worth the time it takes to get them right.
As always, thank you for stopping by. If you enjoyed by this post, feel free to hit the heart icon below, share my work, or subscribe for news, exclusive content, and more.
Thanks again. Now get back to writing.