What’s In a Name: The Importance of Choosing the Right Character Name
Director Christopher Nolan creates some crazy names for his characters, names that have a greater purpose than simply who is who.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When I sat down to write the outline for This Broken Earth, I knew that I had to choose very important names for each of my characters, names whose meanings had messages all their own. When choosing the right name for a character, consider two things:
1. Baby Name Books – I usually browse through these when figuring out what name to choose for characters. I usually try to find names that have meanings that fit the characterization of each character. The reader may never know the meaning of the name or make the connection, but if they do then it is a really cool surprise for them.
2. Sound-Alike Names – Sometimes it is not the meaning of the name but the sound of the name that is important. The main character of This Broken Earth is Clayton Delroy. “Clayton” means “from the town on the clay bed” which is pretty bland and meaningless, but he is someone who throughout the novel is shaped and molded by God to become a great hero. In this case, his name sounds like the characterization rather than being used as a direct meaning for the character’s purpose. The name Delroy, however, means “servant of the king” in that he is a follower of Christ. I also named my villain “Asher” because it sounds like what he desires to do to the planet: turn it to ashes.
Some of the best fiction contains characters that have interesting and meaningful names. Use the following list to examine ways that other writers and film-makers have used names to represent character traits and to create paths for characters.
J.R.R. Tolkien‘s characters all have meaningful names. I will focus on two for time’s sake. Frodo comes from the Norse king Fróði who desired peace. His story is one that Tolkien would know well being a scholar of Norse mythology and history. Samwise was named after Tolkien’s neighbor who was a gardener and all around handyman. Sam is also a derivative of the name “Samuel” which means “God has heard” or “name of God” in Hebrew. Think about how much Sam helps Frodo in LOTR. He is indeed an answer to Frodo’s prayers, and really how God deals with us in many ways…on the simplest of terms.
Christopher Nolan named the characters for Inception in the form of an acrostic. The main characters are Dom, Robert, Eames, Arthur/Ariadne, Mal, Sato, which spells out the word DREAMS. DeCaprio’s character “Cobb” is a sound-alike for the Urdu word “Khwob” which means “dream”. DeCaprio’s character name is also the same name as another character in Nolan’s first feature film “Following” (1998). Of course, Nolan loves puzzles, and so this makes perfect sense for Inception which is, like all of Nolan’s films, one big puzzle. The name “Mal” is connected to the song “Non, je ne regrette rien” performed by Edith Piaf which runs throughout the film. The phrase from the song “I regret neither the good things I’ve done nor the bad things” is “Ni le bien qu’on m’a fait ni le mal” in French, mal being the pet name that Cobb has for his dead wife. (More strange facts about Inception can be found here).
Nathaniel Hawthorne was notorious for choosing symbolic names for his characters. In The Scarlet Letter for example, Hawthorne uses both the technique of the meaningful name and the sound-alike name. Hester Prynne, the shunned adulteress who names her illegitimate daughter “Pearl” (because she was purchased at a great price) has a very interesting name. Let us start with her surname “Prynne”. William Prynne was a well known Puritan minister who was persecuted for speaking out against the Church of England. He was imprisoned several times, had his ears cut off, and was severely flogged many times for his outspoken railing against the Archbishop Laud. The name Hester comes from the Bible and is another pronunciation of the name Esther, meaning “star”. Esther, in the Biblical book by the same name, is the daughter of Abihail who is married to King Ahasuerus of Persia. Esther almost single-handedly prevents the genocide of the Israelites, writing a huge wrong. The other character of Hawthorne’s (even though all characters in the book have meaningful names) is Arthur Chillingsworth. “Arthur” denotes leadership and the surname relates a feeling of icy, calculated evil. Hawthorne is a fantastic model for studying the effectiveness of character names.
One of my favorite books The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, contains three names that have meanings which make one think about the rationale for their use. Athos, the stalwart “leader” who is the strongest of the three references Mount Athos in Greece. In every way, Athos is like a mountain because his will is unmovable, and is even compared to a mountain in chapter 13 when a Bastille guard says “But that is not a man’s name; that is the name of a mountain.” Porthos and Aramis, however are named after actual Musketeers, but the truth is that these are fake names to protect their families. Naming characters with an alias that then is revealed later not to be their real name is a genius tactic. It can be used for many creative purposes.
What other character names do you like? Post below with your favorites, what they mean, and how they reveal aspects of those characters to the reader.