[Insert name here]

10 Nov

by Biljana Likic


Ahhh, names.

Names have the power to embody an ideal. They have the incredible ability of making you judge somebody before you’ve even met them, subconsciously or not. And certain names have inescapable connotations: a Jezebel is a whore; a Narcissus is vain; a Samson is strong. Names have become so much a part of human identity that when we just meet somebody, more often than not, our first words to each other include them. In fact, it’s unnerving not to know somebody’s name. It makes the memory of them so mysterious and enigmatic.

Which is exactly why, when it comes down to having to name things, I freak out. A lot. Especially when it’s the naming of a character.

There are so many questions to ask.

Do I want to give them a name with connotations? If I have a man who’s really strong, am I going to name him Jack, or am I going to name him Francis? If I do name them something that doesn’t really suit their personality, is it for the sole purpose of breaking the stereotype or did I do it for irony?

And then there’s the issue of multiple characters.

What if I have six characters, and four of their names start with the letter S? Is that too many S’s? Should I change them? If in one book my villain’s name is Matthew and in the next one it’s Mark, will people notice that they’re both M names and both biblical?

And then I try to reassure myself by telling myself that I’m thinking too much. People see the name, they see the character, they put them together, and run with it. That’s all.

But that’s not quite true is it? I’ve had many, many discussions about character names, and if they do or do not fit, or if they hint too obviously at the nature of the character. It used to be okay to name people Adolf. Now there’s a taboo. Do I use that taboo to my advantage, or do I try to give the character a clean slate?

That’s when I realized that there never really is a clean slate. People go into books with expectations, and names only help to feed those expectations. It’s up to the writer if they want to meet or break them.

And trust me, more often than not, you want to break them.

When I first told my friend about my manuscript, I told her that my protagonist’s name was Ingrid. She told me after she read it that at first she didn’t like the name. She didn’t think it suited her personality because she associated it with old ladies and not, as it were, with stubborn, loud sixteen-year-olds. Then, in one of the greatest compliments somebody could give me without realizing it, she said, “But the more I read, the more it felt right. I can’t think of any other name for her.”

Which may not have meant much to her, but to me it meant the world.

Her statement basically proved to me that Ingrid was a strong character. She was able to break away from the stereotypes her name leant her and make it her own. She changed my friend’s perception of the name Ingrid from Old Lady to Cool Heroine.

And through all this, I realized that all of my questions and trivial worries were completely and utterly moot.

As long as your character’s voice is strong, it doesn’t matter what you name them. If they are able to hold onto their personality, their personality will begin to have a hold on the name. If you can make them come to life in a person’s mind, they will become real. And them being real will give the name a new dimension.

So stop worrying about what others think of your protagonist’s name when they read it and focus instead on finding something that feels right to you personally. That character already exists in your mind, and only you know which name will suit it best.

And who knows. Maybe next time somebody thinks of Jezebel, they won’t just think of a whore.


Biljana Likic is an aspiring author, currently revising her first novel, TIME IS A FUNNY THING. She is in her first year of university, where she can’t wait till she’s out so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can visit her blog here and follow her on Twitter here.

30 Responses to “[Insert name here]”

  1. kaemccrae November 10, 2010 at 4:04 AM #

    : ] I was actually just studying names tonight! (cough, for a term test I’d yet to study for UNTIL tonight…)
    An excerpt from my textbook –

    “Names are signs that have both indexical and symbolic value: they are indexical in that they identify a person in some relational way (in relation to a kinship group, to a particular social context, etc) and they are symbolic in that they are based on specific cultural traditions.”
    – The Quest for Meaning, by Marcel Danesi (U of T prof, you should look into taking one of his classes. : ] He’s fantastic!)

    Basically, you covered this exactly in less strenuously academic wording – a name first contextualizes a character within previous connotations, denoting from that a series of expectations which a persona may or may not follow. By choosing a name, you set the basic perspective from which you might expect a reader to see the individual. And it’s the story, after that initial introduction, that recreates and restructures a new context for which that name to operate within.

    But instead of finding that limiting, I find it thrilling. As authors, we’re artists, and with every word we choose, we are akin to painters choosing their colors – we decide, in plot, in chapters, in scenes, in sentences, in words, in names, how the reader will look at our work. We lay the groundwork that they will then interpret personally. And naming is so crucial and godlike!

    Because before descriptions, or actions the characters take, or the situations they reside in, the reader knows their name. And from that name comes the preconceptions. And from those preconceptions the interpretation is born. If that’s not power, I don’t know what is.

    Terribly exciting.
    And why, every time I create a character, I spend way too much time researching names – I LIKE abusing the preconceived notions, and playing with how the expectations of a name might be ironic or even just appropriate. As long as it’s not frightfully obvious, of course. Like naming your hero Hercules/Heracles/Herakles. A little too far, unless you’re Anne Carson. xD

    http://www.babynames.com ? Totally my hero.

    • Savannah J. Foley November 10, 2010 at 11:42 AM #

      I totally agree, and that’s why I love the concept of connotation. We’re painting images inside your brain, how cool is that?!

    • Biljana November 10, 2010 at 2:01 PM #

      You’re right, as scary as it is it’s super exciting. And dude babynames.com is like my go to place. Closely followed by behindthename.com and etymonline.com .

      And hot damn! It should’ve been YOU writing this article! Lol so eloquent 😀

  2. Aurora Blackguard November 10, 2010 at 4:46 AM #

    LOL. You know, I used to HATE the name Peeta from HG. I thought it was such a whiny and milk-soppish name. Obviously, now I think different. I associate it with cute, blonde baker boys 🙂 Great post, Biljana!

    • Biljana November 10, 2010 at 2:08 PM #

      Hahahahahaha that name actually came to mind when. Peeta = pita = bread = really? But the more I read the less I noticed and now I can’t think of any other name for him.

  3. authorguy November 10, 2010 at 7:33 AM #

    When I was writing St. Martin’s Moon I named one character (Bertrand) the way I did at first for the simple humor of it all (he was the Big Bad), but it also occurred to me that it had a valid reason beyond that. He could have been teased in school for his name, and that’s why, later on, he became the monster he became. Generally I don’t think about names, I just tinker with sounds until I come up with something that sounds good. My most recent story, a steampunk Santa bit of Rankin-Bass-style strangeness, was pretty hard in that respect, since I was naming elves and was avoiding human names entirely, while aiming for silly.

    Marc Vun Kannon

    • Biljana November 10, 2010 at 2:11 PM #

      I do have a way of overthinking things as I am a touch neurotic (a touch?) but yeah in terms of sounds, if you walk into my room when I’m looking for names, you’re probably going to find me sounding out first names and last names like a broken record haha.

      And that must fun, coming up with silly names! Good luck!

      • authorguy November 10, 2010 at 9:19 PM #

        The first was easy, the hero elf was talking to the other and ‘Flarbignarg’ came naturally. The hero is named Tomparasil, but wants to be called Tom. Other elves took more work. The “villain” is Dinglefor. It took a bit of work to come up with a silly name that sounded mildly bad for the bad guy.

  4. Rowenna November 10, 2010 at 9:33 AM #

    Great post! One of my favorite characters is named Marjory–when I read a section about her at a critique group, someone commented “I love how the feisty girl has an old-lady name.” Of course, it was a historical, so it wasn’t an old-lady name then…but I was glad that her personality came out despite the associations of a fusty old-lady name!

    I sometimes find myself “trying on” different names for characters, to see which feels right. So much for me is even the “feel” of a name in your mouth when you say it–Anna for a delicate character because the name barely moves your lips, Vivian for someone who demands attention and requires the hard “v” sounds. Perchance I overthink…but it’s fun!

    • Biljana November 10, 2010 at 7:49 PM #

      Fully, I do that too, with delicate and hard sounding names and stuff. But I’m one of those that can’t start writing, can’t even try writing, unless I have a name that fits. It’s too distracting not knowing it.

      And yes, exactly about the personality thing! Awesome.

  5. Rachel Russell November 10, 2010 at 10:51 AM #

    I obsess over character names. By obsess, I mean I will spend days upon days thinking up that *perfect* name before I can even conceive of writing. If I don’t like the name of the character, writing is literally impossible for me. There’s a lot of power in a name for me, and it very much has an impact on whether or not I can smoothly write a character, and whether I like or dislike them. If I choose poorly for a character’s name, I know within hours because I have a hard time writing them. I might even begin to lose interest in them.

    Great read. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one that spends long hours puzzling over a name.

    • Biljana November 10, 2010 at 7:52 PM #

      Ditto on the power and interest. I’m exactly like that too. I have this monster dictionary and thesaurus that chills in my room that, in the middle, has a list of common given games. You can imagine it’s been used quite a bit :P. I’ll also do things like look through my textbooks at the names of the writer’s and publishers haha.

  6. Savannah J. Foley November 10, 2010 at 11:45 AM #

    I really!!!! want to name my Sleeping Beauty retelling character Tristan, though she’s a girl, but you and Sarah have talked me out of it. It’s such a great name though!!

    • Biljana November 10, 2010 at 7:53 PM #

      Lol yes great name for a guy! I’d constantly be thinking that Tristan was in reference to the prince or something! It’d be so distracting!

      Though my reply here is in total contrast to what I say in the last few sentences of my article :P.

    • Chele November 10, 2010 at 9:20 PM #

      OMGOSH I LOVE LOVE LOOOOVE the name Tristan!

      It happened after I named a character that once for a HP roleplay (heh ;P). He was a twelve year old and completely took over my life… (hush, it’s a little sad I know.) The forum’s been dead for a while but I’m still so completely attached to the name, pahaha. So because I’m now completely biased, I actually think it’d make a good name for a girl, too XD

      Love the article, Biljana!

      • Biljana November 11, 2010 at 1:11 AM #

        Hahaha there, Sav, you have your support! Run with it before we stop you!

        Glad you enjoyed the article :D.

  7. Kat Zhang November 10, 2010 at 1:30 PM #

    Great article, Billy! I love thinking about character names, too. Sometimes I have a secret “in” joke about them, but often, I just go with what “feels” right. I also think of “Ingrid”s as old ladies (or stuck up, beautiful, rich blondes), so I can’t wait to read your ms and get a new sense for the name 😀

    • Biljana November 10, 2010 at 7:54 PM #

      Haha yeah sometimes I’ll go with a little private joke that I associate with the name, too. But it’s usually more for trivial filler characters that I do that with, you know?

  8. Susan November 10, 2010 at 4:54 PM #

    Great post, and what a great point you make! If the character is strong, they’ll transcend the name. True, true, true.

    And I like the name Ingrid. 🙂

    Random aside — the only time I hated a name was in GRACELING because his name was Po. Po means “ass” in German!!!! How did that make it to print without someone changing it? All it would have needed was an “e” on the end. Every time I saw his name, I read it like “Ass”. Maybe that’s part of the reason I didn’t enjoy the book… 😛

    • Biljana November 10, 2010 at 7:55 PM #

      Ooooof that’s harsh hahahaha. That’s also something I look at; what the name or word means in other languages.

      Glad you liked the post.

  9. Chantal November 10, 2010 at 5:50 PM #

    Great I post! I love choosing names, I pretty much live on babynames.com for days when I’m trying to choose a name for a character lol.

    • Biljana November 10, 2010 at 7:56 PM #

      Yyyyep. Hours and hours of my times has been spent browsing through babynames.com lol.

  10. Ella November 10, 2010 at 6:42 PM #

    LMAO. This had to come sooner or later…

    I’m practically psychotic about character names. I’ve spent hours upon hours browsing lists, looking up meanings, getting second impressions, and essentially just trying to find something that’s a perfect fit. Nearly every main character in both my WIP’s has had theirs changed two or three times. >_> I still have a good handful of important OC’s who don’t have names at all…

    Ironically, my main characters are the ones whose names I came up with on a whim. And what do you know, said name just happens to have the perfect meaning/sound/origin. It’s probably fate or something.

    • Biljana November 10, 2010 at 7:57 PM #

      I LOVE it when the perfect names come on a whim. It solves so many problems!

      Lol I’m glad you like the post :):).

  11. Elizabeth November 10, 2010 at 8:26 PM #

    Oh gosh, reading all of this makes me feel weird. Because I don’t think of names the way you guys do. I think about meaning but, like, it’s not quite as important. I name characters based on the color of a name. Does that make sense?

    Basically I have synesthesia–I see colors in letters, words, numbers, and even music. So when I’m creating a character I think of what color I want them to be. In my WIP, my main character’s name is Nura. I chose that because I wanted dark name. Not because she’s evil but because of her being the moon spirit. In my mind Nura is a very dark purple with small hints of light, almost like stars.

    Does that all make sense?

    • Biljana November 10, 2010 at 8:59 PM #

      It makes total sense. I heard about that, and I’m SUPER jealous that you have it. I always thought it was the coolest thing.

  12. Olga November 10, 2010 at 9:05 PM #

    I’ve been known to think of characters and character names WAY before I think of stories for them. Or story names. Or one-liners. And then build around those. Catching Casper is a particular prize of mine. No idea what it will be about, but…it’s there. And it’s mine. And Casper? Well…she’s fecking AWESOME!

    • Biljana November 11, 2010 at 1:17 AM #

      Yeah, I know what you’re talking about, when you see a name and it just has to be connected to somebody worth writing about. I’ve never done it, but it’s sweet that you have.

  13. CA Marshall November 11, 2010 at 4:42 AM #

    My favorite places to find character names is in movie credits and by pestering people on Twitter 🙂 Also, those CAPTCHA things when you make blog comments? those are sometimes good to find names for things, like a snalta could be a snack cracker or soemthing…

    • Biljana November 11, 2010 at 6:00 PM #

      HAHA I’m in a public and I’m trying not to laugh out loud at “snalta”.

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