Choosing Character Names: Why meaning is important

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I love names. Really love them. I think one of my favorite things about starting a new manuscript is choosing my characters’ names. But it’s also one of the most challenging. For me, a name can’t just suit a character (strong or weak, masculine or feminine), but also has to help define him or her. Names have meaning. They have power. And they have to echo who the characters are, what their purpose is, where they fit into life.

We chose the names of our children with great care, and have seen firsthand how each has almost eerily grown into the meaning of her name (my husband would call this one of my woo-woo moments, but I know what I’ve seen! 🙂 ). With that kind of proof, how could I offer my characters less attention when it comes to naming them?

Sometimes, of course, a character comes into my head fully named and I don’t really have much say in the matter. Most time, however, I start with a baby name book. The one on my shelf–20,001 Names for Baby–is dog-eared, well-thumbed, and worth its weight in gold. Sometimes I flip through it for the sheer joy of savoring names that have come down through history, names from every corner of the world, names that will help to shape my characters and my story.

Nowhere is this more true than in SINS OF THE ANGELS, where Alexandra means ‘man’s defender’,  Seth means ‘the appointed’, and Jacob (the name by which Alex knows the angel Aramael to begin with) means ‘he who supplants’. All names that are evocative. Descriptive. Powerful. Heck, just by knowing the meanings behind the names, you have a hint of the story itself (and doesn’t that make you want to know more? ;)).

Names. Easy to bestow on a whim or a fad, but capable of so very much more. What about you? On what basis do you choose names for characters (or children or pets)?


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8 responses to “Choosing Character Names: Why meaning is important”

  1. Emilia_Quill Avatar

    I had a nice surprise concerning names and meanings just now. I named a character Regel after a star (fiery ball of gass not human), he’s stubborn, likes rules and would like to live a monotonous life. I found out at that “regel” means “rule” in several languages!

    I also find the meaning of a name important because it’s one way to show the reader what the character is like. If I can’t find a meaning that fits the character I try and think of a name that conjures the approrite images. Since I’m writing fantasy I can be pretty liberal with the names as long as they’re pronouncable.

    I usually use Thesaurus or a dictionary to find names and ideas, but I’ve also used parts of a dinosaur’s name and once part of a plant’s latin name.

    1. lindapoitevin Avatar

      That is a nice surprise, Emilia! Funny how these things work out sometimes, isn’t it? And yes, fantasy does lend itself to a little bit of “cheating”…lucky you! 🙂

  2. Sharon S. Avatar

    I always like to ask author’s how they come up with names. Some say their characters just appear in their heads already named. I tried to come up with a name for an imaginary character and couldn’t do it. Nothing seemed right. When it came to naming our two girls we couldn’t agree. We ended up using name that neither of us “didn’t hate” . Our dog was easy. She was born on April 1st so the kids named her April 🙂

    1. lindapoitevin Avatar

      It is difficult, isn’t it, Sharon? I think there’s an intimidation factor, knowing that our kids (or characters) are going to be stuck with whatever names we give them forever. 😉 If it makes you feel any better, we changed the names of our twin girls while in the delivery room…the ones we’d picked just didn’t suit!

  3. Stella ExLibris Avatar

    I am completely like you Linda, so glad to see I’m not the only one obsessed with names and their meanings! 😀 I could spend hours just browsing through names, their origins and meanings, I love it, such a fascinating research and love how names are so descriptive, we truly carry our character in our names 🙂

    1. lindapoitevin Avatar

      So true, Stella! Makes you wonder if there isn’t something to that whole numerology thing… 🙂

  4. Renée Avatar
    Renée

    My main character was easy. With little thought she had a full name and description. An important supporting character took months to work until I realized she had the wrong name. Once i changed that the story suddenly went a new direction to my final destination in a really cool way.

    1. Linda Avatar
      Linda

      It’s amazing how much difference a seemingly unimportant change can make, isn’t it? Congrats on figuring it out! 🙂

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