Literary Names: Do Characters Name Themselves?

Novelist and playwright Joanne Lessner, author of Pandora’s Bottle and Critical Mass, wonders whether she names her characters….or they name themselves.

In my alternate life (the one where I’m a jet-setting opera singer based in London), I have a clutch of children with fabulous names. The girls are called Tessa, Lily, Francesca and Imogen, and the boys are Sebastian, Phineas, Jasper and Colin. In my actual life, I’m a New York-based writer and performer with two kids who got my first round draft picks: Julian and Phoebe. But as a writer, surely I can pepper my work with those other glorious, un-exercised gems, right?

Well, not exactly.

J.K. Rowling has famously said that Harry Potter just strolled into her head, fully formed. I understand what she means. My characters have a habit of knocking on my mental door wearing nametags. Even names that carry hints of significance are often a chicken and egg situation. For example, the hero of my novel, Pandora’s Bottle, is named Sy Hampton. I don’t recall consciously choosing his name, but one reader asked if it was meant to illustrate a “sigh” of disappointment (he’s having a mid-life crisis.) Another suggested that “Hampton” indicates a yearning for the finer things in life epitomized by those exclusive Long Island enclaves. Those are certainly reasonable assumptions, but I can’t say honestly whether Sy grew more melancholy and striving because of his name, or if, when I named him, my subconscious instinctively know where he was heading. However, I do know that when my editor floated the possibility of changing his name – feeling that Sy suggested someone of a slightly older generation – I just couldn’t.

The anti-heroine of a novel I’m working on now is named Katelyn. I must confess, I’ve never been a fan of that name or its multiple spellings, so imagine my surprise when that’s what my fingers typed. Her last name is Marx, which I also don’t recall selecting, but have since recognized has political overtones in line with Katelyn’s schemes. The success of her plans will hinge on her ability to remain chameleon-like and forgettable. What better way to illustrate that quality than with a name with multiple, hard-to-keep-track-of spellings? Except that, again, I gave it no thought whatsoever. Katelyn Marx just showed up for work the day I started writing and politely introduced herself.

Still, it doesn’t always work that way. Minor characters, in particular, can be more reticent, and as they blink patiently at me in the doorway, I try to let my mind free associate until something clicks. Even so, these characters often don’t live and breathe in quite the same way as the ones who are instinctive. But giving serious thought to a name is not necessarily a bad thing, and when you hit it right, you know. As one writer friend told me recently, a simple change from Lily to Billie made her character come alive.

One situation that does require special care is naming for the stage, where the sound is more important than the way it looks on the page. In my play, Critical Mass, a character named Stefano Donato kept my cast’s tongues twisted. It looks neat and symmetrical in print, but the actors had to remind themselves where the accents were every time they said it. Lesson learned.

In a musical, names that rhyme are a boon.

I’m currently adapting Wilkie Collins’s gothic novella The Haunted Hotel. The heroine’s name is Agnes – not much joy there. But make her Alice, and suddenly we’ve got malice, callous and palace, which happens to be the name of the eponymous hotel. Her faithless lover? Collins named him Herbert. But rechristened Edward, he can lure another woman bedward. Even here, though, where active choice is involved, expedience takes precedence over all those names I’d love to employ.

An acting teacher of mine once said that your gut is a better actor than your brain, and I think the same holds true for writers, particularly when choosing the right names for characters. I’ve had the experience of reading others’ work and being distracted by a name that’s too fussy, unrealistic, or forced in some intangible way, and I find myself wondering if that person was mining his or her well of untapped baby names hoping to press an old favorite into active service. So for now I’ll have to hope that I get a surprise visit someday from Tessa, Francesca, Phineas or Jasper – unless I can come up with some good rhymes for them. Until then, I’ll continue to let my subconscious do the work, opening my door to whoever knocks, and eagerly asking that character his or her name.

Joanne Sydney Lessner is the author of Pandora’s Bottle, a novel inspired by the true story of the world’s most expensive bottle of wine (Flint Mine Press, 2010). Her main characters are named Tripp, Sy and Valentina. Can you guess the plot?

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23 Responses to “Literary Names: Do Characters Name Themselves?”

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Other Carolyn Says:

June 9th, 2011 at 1:38 am

Most of my characters names are stupidly irrelevant to what I plan for their personalities, usually because they start as completely different characters in completely different stories, but I can understand the feeling that a name, once chosen, might inadvertently guide the character’s development. I had a minor character called Charlotte Corday, after the french revolutionary figure, solely because it pleased me to do so — and it turns out she’s vital to the plot in ways her namesake might suggest.

I do find it impossible to rename characters, no matter how much I may dislike the name I’ve already given them. Even changing the spelling is beyond me. I guess characters settle into their names the way children do.

chakrateeze Says:

June 9th, 2011 at 3:42 am

I gave one of my characters the last name of Bibescu after Marthe Bibescu, a beauty Romanian-French from the Edwardian Era. Google her name and you’ll come across a lovely painting of her in a white, floaty dress. Her doe eyes, chestnut hair and patrician air made her a no-brainer inspiration for a heroine.


Florence Says:

June 9th, 2011 at 6:21 am

I once had a character who was completely un-nameable. Every name i gave him seemed loaded with connotations i didn’t like so he ended up with no name. He was the protagonist and ended up just as ‘him’.

Vienna Says:

June 9th, 2011 at 8:18 am

I had a particular protagonist who I simply couldn’t rename. I was able to give her a name, but I hated it completely, and since one of the character’s little quirks was hating her full name, I was having a really hard time picking a name that I liked that worked! I hate the name Nicole, nicknamed Nikki but she kind of, as Joanne said, strolled into my head wearing a name tag! I wound up changing the name, but then I changed it back because she just didn’t fit the new name! So she’s now a Nicole, and I don’t think that’s changing. Sigh. I also have had characters just walk into my head with a name I didn’t originally like but now I quite like, like Joanna. I never cared for that name before writing, but an absolutely lovely character named Joanna kind of sauntered into my head, already named, and as I grew to love the character, I grew to love the name!

purpleprose78 Says:

June 9th, 2011 at 10:23 am

It has happened multiple ways for me. I have a character named Mackenzie that named herself. I certainly didn’t name her. I don’t even like the name.

Most of the time for me, the plot comes first and I go strolling through nameberry, name books, and a few other places looking for a name that will introduce me to a character that fits with the story. It usually works.

Elle Amberley Says:

June 9th, 2011 at 11:04 am

Interesting, names can make all the difference.
I’m lucky in that way, the names appear in my head as per magic.
It works for me.

Trustedwriter Says:

June 9th, 2011 at 11:24 am

It’s a mix for me. Sometimes my characters definitely walk in with name tags already attached. Sometimes I use the first name that pops into my head, and it usually fits and stays. Other times I scour baby name websites trying to find a perfect combination. It depends a lot on whether the story’s plot came to my mind first, or the character. If it was the character, they likely already had a name. If it was the plot, I find myself naming almost everybody. Sometimes story ideas come from JUST a name!

With my current WIP, a main character is part of a sibset of 12. *grins* With families that big, they usually don’t have names attached, so I got to name them. Ah, delight. I spent an hour or more last night on that. I decided that their parents like short or spunky Latin names for boys, and long virtue names for girls, with cute nicknames. (Exuberance, nn Berry. Hee!)

Claire Says:

June 9th, 2011 at 1:25 pm

The name Shanti, for the heroine of a novel I wrote in eight grade, came to me in a dream. I’d never even heard the name before. I still use that character’s name as a pseudonym for my other work.

Another male character I had went through three different names — from Cy, to Adam, and finally to Iain. He was supposed to be attractive to the main character, but he wasn’t, and I couldn’t figure out why until I finally changed the name to something I personally found attractive. Suddenly instead of some straight-laced guy, he was long-haired skate-punk, and the character suddenly worked.

Londinium Says:

June 10th, 2011 at 10:05 pm

I know what you mean. In fact a character came to me with strawberry blonde hair and bold blue lips set in a smirk and annouced to me that her name was Geraldine Hero and that I should just call her Hero beore winking one of her mismatched eyes and pulling out a cigar and blowing smoke in my face.

I was star struck. It was love at first sight despite the fact that her cigar smoke was triggering my allergies. She was everything I had never expected; bold, brassy and completely uncaring of the fact that the smoke was making me sick. I could almost see her smirk when I coughed.

AJ_Bear Says:

June 13th, 2011 at 5:03 pm

I always have a hard time finding the perfect name! It takes me ages. Sometimes, I hear a name and I see it on a person and it’s like “Bam!” that’s them. But that hasn’t happened for a long time. When I was writng a novella about the Russian revolution, I saw a small woman with bright blue eyes and curly red hair and she was telling everyone she saw that her name was Tatiana. It worked.
Some of my minor characters are easy to name. In my Depression-WWII era novel, the sisters were easy to name, they just strolled on in, fully named. It was almost as if they all had nametags. The protagnoist was impossible to name, but I finally settled on a French-German-Dutch name that fitted all of her family’s backrounds, but her husband is impossible. I’ve found names then tossed them after a few pages of writing it out. Grr! I can see him, I just can’t see a name fitting him!

*person* Says:

June 14th, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Haha, it’s true. I’ve only been writing for… Well, my whole life, but I’m only eleven, and several characters have come into to my mind that way, once a skinny albino girl pranced inside my mind and proclaimed that her name was Beetle and would have it no other way.
Sometimes they aren’t fully named when they come into my mind… But they still name themselves, one of my lesser villains watched me surf this website intill I came across the name “Bonita” and said “That’s me,” before exclaiming that her boyfriend was Septemus, and that was the way it was.

*person* Says:

June 14th, 2011 at 4:07 pm

I’m stuck on naming one character,
The male main character (there are two; his female counterpart is Svetly), is presently going nameless,
Ottilo, (variation of Ottila, no you won’t find it here, but you’ll find Ottila 🙂 )
I CAN’T DECIDE!!!!!!!!

*person* Says:

June 14th, 2011 at 4:07 pm


Prim Says:

June 14th, 2011 at 10:47 pm

I wish that more of my characters walked up to me with a name and personality already wrapped up. I usually end up coming up with either one or the other. Like the story that I’m writing now has a main character of Anabelle Marie Pulse, her name came first and her personality is still a work in progress. But her counterpart Izadora Paige Velvet was a personality first kind of girl.

Boston Girl Says:

June 14th, 2011 at 10:49 pm

I don’t think I’ve ever had a character walk in on me with name and all. Usually I choose a name I haven’t used in either a very long time or ever, and the character tends to fill out to fit the name.

As for the renaming game…I’ve found it necessary to rename a few of my characters. Fortunately their personalities didn’t really change much, if at all. I think I had one that I renamed who did change to fit the name (names carry certain connotations with me — and I won’t use a name I hate, unless I’m naming a villain or just a character I don’t like!), which I found quite interesting. So I have to watch out when I’m naming my characters.

Nickelle Says:

June 23rd, 2011 at 5:57 pm

I completely know how that is. A few years ago I had a dream that inspired a story I just couldn’t stop thinking about. So eventually I said “Okay, okay! I’ll write it down.” And promptly the heroine, the elder of a set of twin girls, appeared in my head bound in manacles, chained to a wall, with a bright, bright blue eyes and unkempt platinum hair. She rasped that her name was Kenda and that was that. She would be nothing else. Which was fine because it suited her. Her awful, privileged, murderous identical twin sister however, just sat back and smirked at me, refusing to tell me her name. So I went online and scoured names. Nothing seemed to work. So I looked up Kenda out of curiosity and the first site I used (I wasn’t a berry yet at the time) said it meant child of cool, clear water. The connotations of fluidity, change, clarity, and even coolness (as in the face of adversity) fit Kenda’s character perfectly. I decided to give her sister a name that was similar yet opposite. I eventually found Amadahy which was cherokee for forest water. I decided that it worked well. Both had water meanings but with Amadahy the connotations could be construed as either peaceful or dark which worked well for the way I had mapped out her character.

After trying several drafts over a period of some weeks tho, the story refused to go where I wanted. It took my some time to realize I was forcing Kenda’s sister into the character mold I wanted for her. Eventually I realized she wasn’t an identical twin but her mirror opposite, dark where her sister was fair, but that the darkness didn’t extend to her personality. She was actually a very sweet, somewhat naive young woman. She cooperated much better when she got her props as a good person at which point I tried to change her name since I wanted something that reflected her new angelic nature (and maybe something a little easier to type). But at that point she refused to be anyone else but Amadahy and eventually I found she would consent to the nickname Ami. It all worked out in the end but it was very difficult for her, where it was so easy for her sister. I guess it can go either way.

Top Picks Thursday 10-20-2011 « The Author Chronicles Says:

October 20th, 2011 at 1:04 pm

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ferntailwp Says:

December 16th, 2011 at 12:44 am

I honestly have no clue where my names came from… Skye, Spencer, Hero, Chloe & Amakaze are my literary babies, well, my original ones. Recent additions include Rowan and IzekieL and a currently unnamed character.

I think Amakaze stemmed from someone else’s character, but just the name. I can never figure out where it comes from or what it means (other than that I think it’s asian in origin) so the character morphed into a wild child because the name is unpredictable and crazy unique. By the way, I pronounce it Ah-muh-kay-zee, but I have no clue if it’s the correct way.

Spencer came off a girl I met at camp. It was the first time I’d ever heard it as a girl’s name and it intrigued me. I grew to really love it, though many seem to hate it, and the girl morphed into someone with a darker image- maybe of someone who might shop at a Spencer’s.

Chloe was originally Sofia. She sprang from a picture drawn by a friend of mine of a school girl in her uniform with very long hair, but not intentionally. It was actually probably half a year before I used her… I named her Sofia on the spot because it really suited her in my handwriting (my F is just a long S with a line through the middle), but when she was created I had already picked Chloe since none of my other characters had a traditional names. I hadn’t meant for Chloe to become Sofia, but I guess my sub-consious had liked the plaid-skirted girl.

Hero, Hero, Hero… Dear lord how did that happen? I never thought of it as a name, and in fact it’s really just a nick-name of hers, but I kind of just wrote it next to a picture I happened to draw. Funny thing is she turned out to be so different from the drawing. Her real name is Tamika in case you’re wondering, but no one calls her that.

Skye is a curious one. I’ve always like noun names and I’ve always liked the look of lower case ‘e’s so it doesn’t surprise me that I used it, but I don’t know where exactly it came from. She originally was really kick-butt and take names later, but now she’s a unique, but shy, asian foreign exchange student (or just emigrant depending on age). It really suites both though, I just wish I could the Cantonese word for it… (She’s from Hong Kong.)

IzekieL is the same story as Amakaze in origin, but he ended up being a joker because he always goes by Zeke and I feel like he’d be an internally happy person, you know? I pronounce this Ih-zee-kee L, but again no clue if it’s right.

Rowan stemmed from Chloe having a boyfriend. A rather serious fellow with reddish-brown hair. I guess his hair colour made me think of it, but it just popped into my head and I literally cried for joy! But then I kept spelling it Roan and the meaning and look of it just seemed wrong until I found Rowan.

Lakin5 Says:

April 4th, 2012 at 12:48 am

In one of my series the names just seem to pop in my head left and right. When I got the main concept of a story that I wanted to write about fangirls and I was inspired to make one about frememies who were opposite from each other. At the same time the names Eleanora nicknamed Ellie and Thea were on my mind and they rest soon followed. I combined my ideas and change on idea so that they be enemies first then become best friends and have them both be fangirls. After I named the two main characters, Thea and Ellie their personalities and the rest of the plot quickly came after.

Haili73 Says:

September 26th, 2012 at 7:58 pm

I’ve only had that happen once: two characters waltzed into my head when I was sleeping over at a friend’s house and announced that they were Judd and Monica. I said fine, but I changed Monica to Monicka for interest. They were brother and sister. Naming my characters is my favorite part of writing. Judd got a friend named David and David’s sister Felicia was friends with Monicka. The ironic thing? The story is still untitled. I call it “The Amazing No-Name Story”

Usually, I relish in naming characters. I’ll spend hours on it. In a Beauty and the Beast retelling, I didn’t want to name “beauty” Belle, Isabelle, or (ek!) Beauty. So I looked up names that meant beautiful and found Calista, which is Greek for “most beautiful” I then used Greek names for the rest of the characters- Damien for the Beast (which ironically means ‘to tame’) Aurelia and Briony (which is latin…) as Calista’s sisters, Elani and Flavian as her parents…

One of my favorites is Halyn Mugarson. Halyn is a unisex african name that means “special, unlike any other” She’s from my first novel When the Stars Fall, and thinks she is anything but. Her mom wanted to name her Lyn, and her dad wanted to name their son Hal, so they compromised, unwittingly giving their daughter a real name. Mugarson is from another name, Muga, which means nothing. I realized later that it is Halyn’s dad who gives her the last name, and it is her dad who makes her feel like nothing. Accidental genius. Her middle name she chooses for herself. It’s a term of endearment from Keidreiy (like a Narnia) and means “treasure”- ILORI.

Jinxgirl Says:

November 20th, 2012 at 7:06 am

I generally choose characters names based off meaning or image of the character, and once they are named, it is impossible for me to imagine them named anything else. I have characters named Fallyn and Kalah and even McKenziBeth, names that I absolutely have no fondness towards now, but which are so thoroughly belonging to those characters that I can’t imagine naming them anything else. Some of my names include Lillith, which means ghost-like, languishing, for an eating disordered, abused teenager who allowed her father to die and rarely speaks, Evangeline, for a conduct disordered child who has characteristics of both “evil” and “angel” as her names suggests, and Jade, a child bred for the prostitution name who never had a birth certificate; she is both a Jane Doe and a jaded child, so Jade/Jane Doe fits her very well. I have a Gina who is very sexual, a Sarah Gail who is her father’s pride and joy and princess (Sarah means princess, Gail and Abigail mean father’s joy), and various characters named for someone or after someone I know in real life. I even have a character named Doral after the cigarette brands.

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deusvult Says:

July 2nd, 2017 at 8:10 pm

It’s the same with me – characters tend to just walk into my head (sometimes without knocking). Sometimes I have to work to find the perfect name, but I know it was always there, just waiting to be discovered.
The only character’s name that I’ve really thought out beyond the fact that it suits them is one that I am working with now, Vincent. I His full name is a bunch of saint’s names, whose fates are actually a prediction of his. Given that the story has quite a Christian undertone, though, this felt like a natural kind of Easter egg to insert for any of my readers who are fanatic enough.

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