Thursday, May 19, 2011

What's in a Name?

I’m always fascinated by the names authors come up with for their characters. On one side of the spectrum, there are the Tolkien-esque ones that are juicy morsels of literature and which pleasantly roll off the tongue. Who doesn’t enjoy saying names like Gimli, Frodo, Legalos, Gandalf, etc. They are names that have texture and feeling to them.  

On the other end of the spectrum are the common, everyday names.  You know what I’m talking about. These are the ones that are just “there.” Ones that feel as if the author went, “How about Bill? Bill’s good, right?” Not that there’s anything wrong with a Bill or an Anne, of course. Depending on the genre, these names may fit perfectly and there are thousands of books that you just can’t put down at 2 in the morning that has a MC with a “basic” name.

Which begs the question, how do authors come up with the name for their characters?

More likely than not, the answer is, “It depends on the writer.” I get that, but I’d love to know what motivates them to sit down and dub a character “Bill” or “Legalos.” Was there a “Bill” in the author’s life that they picture in their heads when they write or is it just a name they picked from thin air? Did Tolkien dream of a future Orlando Bloom when he penned “Legalos” for the first time?

The reason I ask is because, as readers and writers, there is a connection to our characters. A lot of people want their MCs to stand out (one way or another) and a catchy name is certainly helpful. But the side-characters are also our creations. “Amy,” may just be a waitress pouring the MC coffee at a diner, but is there a back-story in the writer’s head about her? Did he/she picture a red-haired beauty they ran into at the Cracker Barrel several years ago? Or is it just a filler name for a shapeless husk that ultimately means nothing to the story?

Names define people. They provide identity and uniqueness even if someone else shares the same one. Maybe our parents spent ages trying to think of the right name or, like my folks, maybe they just picked something on a whim. Either way, once it’s ours, we own it.  

And our characters are no different.

So, writers, how do you come up with the names in your stories?


  1. I don't use (at least yet) any background from my personal life to my characters. I think that's because if I do it, I'll be restricted (even if just psychologically) to the real-life reference.
    What I do is that I try to picture the character in my head - like a photo. After that it gets easier to find a name. I have a character who doesn't have a name yet; he's the main villain, and oh boy, nothing seems to fit him. LOL
    - EEV

  2. @EEV - See, I love how everyone has a different approach. As for your villain, I'm sure inspiration will hit you at some point.