What’s In a Name?
An Essay on Naming Characters
By Kate Logan
When it comes to character creation, be it for a story or an illustration, choosing the proper name for a character is vital. All too often do I see characters with poorly thought-out names: the chivalrous knight Darren Starhawk; the sweet, innocent Lady Elvira; or the rough-and-tumble brawler Poindexter. On their own, these names are fine (even Starhawk, if you're going for a sci-fi flare), but they simply don't work with the characters they are describing. No one is going to take poor old Poindexter seriously, no matter how big his muscles are. To remedy this catastrophe, here are a few tips and guidelines when naming characters.
First, a little game. Below is a list of several of my characters and a brief description of each, all mixed up and out of order. Try to correctly match the name to the character description. The answers are at the end of this essay (no peeking!).
1. Senshi Meijin
2. Cornelius Epoch
3. Hypatia Watson
4. Sean O'Brien
5. Elizabeth "Mouse" Williams
6. Cameron Sicarius
7. Kireina Idèr
8. Dimitri Xailez
A. A quiet, yet very intelligent, young wizard
B. A cheerful, outgoing prankster
C. A pacifistic, misunderstood air-mage
D. An elvin warrior-princess with a short temper
E. A beautiful earth-mage
F. A history teacher
G. A genius investigator and bounty hunter
H. A young noble with a dark side
Names with Meaning
This is one of my favorite methods for naming characters. Basically, the meaning of the name reflects the character's personality. For example, take the name Katherine (incidentally, this is also my name). Katherine means "pure." Therefore, characters with the name Katherine should be sweet, innocent, possibly naïve, good, wholesome, and other traits we associate with the word "pure." Its length also suggests maturity. Note that this usually only applies to the full version of the name. A perfect example of this is William Shakespeare's Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. Her name is Katherine, but by referring to her as Kate, the name now reflects her rebellious nature.
Baby name books are great for this technique, since they usually give you a brief summary of the names' meanings. There are also a lot of online baby name sites that can work for this purpose.
Avery: "elvin ruler" = an elvin monarch
Callisto: "most beautiful" = a physically attractive character
Aaron: "mountain of strength" = a strong, or tough character
Shira: "song" = a singer
Clancy: "red-haired fighter" = um...
Dashiell: "page" = a knight in training
Another way to create names with meanings behind them is to combine words from various languages that describe the traits you want. The best example I can give is with my character Senbella Pericu. Here's how I created her name:
Sen-: from senshi, Japanese for "warrior"
-bella: from bellum, Latin for "war"
Pericu: from periculum, Latin for "danger"
So, can you guess what type of character Senbella is?
She's a warmage. It is additionally possible that she is attractive, since bella also means "beautiful." Using this technique to name characters can be tricky if you don't have an extensive vocabulary, and it isn't always easy to derive names that don't sound silly. Another good example comes from Earthsong, a webcomic by Lady Yates. Characters from this series are based on beings from myth and legend. Her character K'Thonya (based on the legend of Medusa and the gorgons) got her name from the word chthonic, meaning "dwelling in or under the earth; also, pertaining to the underworld," an adjective used to describe the gorgons.
Names That Are Things
This catchall category covers names that are directly derived from objects, places, or adjectives from various languages. Someone named Arrow or Archer is probably very good with a bow, or is a Native American. Someone named Harmony or Melody probably has a musical voice and may even be a singer. Using Earthsong again as an example, the name of the main villain, Beluosus, literally translates from Latin to mean "full of monsters." Anime is notorious for characters with names like this. The three main characters from Excel Saga (Excel, Hyatt, and Lord Illpalazzo) are all named after hotels; in Sorcerer Hunters, there's Chocolate and Tira Misu, Gateau and Éclair, and Carrot and Marron Glace (food, specifically deserts). The Dragonball series has such characters as Vegeta (from vegetable), Brolli (broccoli), Kakorot (carrot), Gohan (Japanese for "rice"), Pan (French for "bread"), Raditz (radish), Trunks (self explanatory), Bra (the same), and Bulma (bloomers). On a more serious note, the Final Fantasy series has Cloud and Squall (a storm at sea).
Use caution when you use names like these, since (as with derivation) some names will be silly (unless that's what you’re going for).
Sometimes, simple association is enough. Using the names of gods or well known historical figures will reflect back on your characters. Alexander (for Alexander the Great) may be a warrior, or someone with a strong, outgoing personality and great leadership qualities. Diana (goddess of the moon) may be a beautiful and mysterious woman. This category also includes fictional characters. In one of the episodes of Excel Saga, there's a character named Cosette Sara. Hyatt comments with "What an unfortunate name," since both are allusions to characters with sad backgrounds (Cosette from the musical Les Misérables and Sara from A Little Princess). One has to be very careful when using this technique: too many allusions will water down the intended effect. Also, only use the names of historical figures; modern individuals (such as famous actors or singers) don't carry the same oomph. Sticking to people from a century or two back is usually a good place to start.
Sometimes, it's good to give a name with a contrary meaning. In the first book of the Harry Potter series, there is Fang (the cowardly mastiff) and Fluffy (the ferocious three-headed monster). Like the other techniques, use sparingly for best effect.
Which Came First?
When all else fails, name your characters before you design them. Sometimes the best character ideas come after the name. I used this technique when I was naming NPCs for a role-playing game I was running. Once I had a list of names, I decided on each characters personality. This is useful when you aren't sure what sort of character you want to design.
In the end, just go with your gut instincts. Say the name several times without looking at the character's picture or description. If you don't immediately envision the type of character you're designing, pick a different name. Soon enough, naming your characters will become second nature!
And lastly, the solutions to that little game:
1. D. Senshi is one of the main characters in the first story I ever started writing. She is a duelist with a fiery temper to match her fire magic. Her name literally translates from Japanese as "master warrior."
2. F. Cornelius is from a story about a school of wizardry. Epoch is a word relating to time and history.
3. G. Hypatia is from a role-playing game I once played in. Hypatia is derived from the historical Hypatia of Alexandria, a mathematician, astronomer, and Platonic philosopher. Her last name comes from the Sherlock Holmes novel series, specifically his partner, Dr. Watson.
4. B. Sean O'Brien, as anyone who has been through my gallery knows, is my mischievous leprechaun and/or half-elf. He was named solely for the humor of his initials (S.O.B.).
5. A. Mouse is actually a friend's character, so named because of her taciturn demeanor.
6. H. Cameron is the good half of my character the Cheshire Cat. Originally, I had named him Feles (pronounced FELL-less), but I decided he needed a more noble sounding name. Sicarius is Latin for "assassin," which is Cheshire's profession. Interestingly enough, sicarius is also the base word for the Biblical Judas's last name, Iscariot
7. E. Kireina is from the same story as Senshi and is meant to be a foil to her. Kireina is Japanese for beautiful.
8. C. Also from the same story as Senshi, Dimitri's name was more or less chosen for its sound. Simply put, it felt right. His last name is from an old code I invented and literally means "mage."