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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!).

Names
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
Characters
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.

More Examples:
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

Derivational Meanings

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).

Famous Names

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.

Ironic Names

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.

Final Notes

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."
After dealing with players who can't seem to choose good names for their characters, I was finally driven to write this to help them. I hope this helps artists and writers alike. Enjoy! ^_^
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:iconcei-ellem:
Cei-Ellem Featured By Owner Jan 20, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
Glad you feel inspired ^_^
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:iconkedestria:
Kedestria Featured By Owner Oct 1, 2013  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
I like this mostly. I disagree though that Starhawk wouldn't suit a knight. In a fantasy I think it'd be a cool name. :D I usually use descriptive names or a combo of real and descriptive for my characters.

Cushing Fan
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:iconcei-ellem:
Cei-Ellem Featured By Owner Oct 1, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Yeah, this piece is so old, it really needs to be reevaluated, but the basics are still pretty true.
Reply
:iconkedestria:
Kedestria Featured By Owner Oct 1, 2013  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
A lot of it depends on genre and personal taste. Everyone's perceptions on name connotations and associations vary. I've noticed that many people seem pretty judgemental on how to name characters, that's sad. I'm glad some aren't.
Reply
:iconcei-ellem:
Cei-Ellem Featured By Owner Oct 1, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
This was written in response to some pretty terrible names created during an old D&D game I was playing in. It was more frustration than anything else. Personally, I seem to have a preference for names with some hidden meaning in them, with varying degrees of subtlety. Like the main character in my current project: Karol Keene (male, I might mention), is named after the pen name for the various writers of Nancy Drew, Carolyn Keene. His parents are also named Nancy and Andrew, for kicks, and of course, he himself is a writer. 

On the more blatant side, the name of my character in the Dresden Files RPG I'm currently playing is Alistair Liddell, referencing Alice Liddell of Wonderland fame. Needless to say, my character is a little mad.
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:iconkedestria:
Kedestria Featured By Owner Oct 1, 2013  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
That's interesting. But, what is considered 'terrible naming' varies from person to person as do views on the 'conventions'. But hearing your thoughts was the mildest that I saw here today.
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:iconcei-ellem:
Cei-Ellem Featured By Owner Oct 1, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Heh, good to know my thoughts were mild. For me, it's a feeling thing, and my issue (with the old D&D game) was that all of the characters felt like they belonged in the same story except for two, whose names sounded completely out of place. One sounded like a brand of toilet paper (if only I could remember what it was) >_<.
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:iconkedestria:
Kedestria Featured By Owner Oct 1, 2013  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
For me naming is also an instinctual thing as well as often based on meaning or personality.

But, again, it's a perception thing. I've seen lots of names here of OCs that make no sense to me but if it works for the creators, great.
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:iconmyrethy:
Myrethy Featured By Owner Sep 27, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
I think the only one I got right from the name game was Sean O'Brien. Failure.
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:iconcei-ellem:
Cei-Ellem Featured By Owner Sep 27, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
God, this is so old. Some of the advice here is rather silly, though a lot is still practical.
Reply
:iconohkey-freeflyer:
OhKey-FreeFlyer Featured By Owner Dec 13, 2008  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
:glomp: You. Are. Amazing! I can't tell you how much I relate to you in the fact that I find myself internally cringing at some of the names of fictional character's I've encountered. Most people seem to think a name is a pretty sounding word, seemingly forgetting that a name holds (or should hold) origin, meaning and power (as all words do).

The most grating naming of characters I've seen is giving EVERY character a japanese (usually at random...and by people who usually watch way too anime and are new to roleplaying and/or character creation) despite consideration of ancestry, genealogy and race.

Sorry, I was ranting ^^; but thankyou for posting!! <333
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:iconcei-ellem:
Cei-Ellem Featured By Owner Dec 13, 2008  Hobbyist Writer
Oh, why do you think I wrote this? It's so totally a rant ^^;
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:iconsquanpie:
squanpie Featured By Owner Sep 10, 2008  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
haha, if only my parents had read this and had a way of looking into the future!
I'm a sort of tomboy (closest description, I'd never call myself that) called 'Annadel.' :XD:
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:iconcei-ellem:
Cei-Ellem Featured By Owner Sep 10, 2008  Hobbyist Writer
*sniggers* Crazy things happen, I suppose.
Reply
:iconvertigohipocondriaco:
Really good stuff, but I gotta add that the french for bread is not pan, but pain, pan is in spanish.
Reply
:iconcei-ellem:
Cei-Ellem Featured By Owner May 21, 2008  Hobbyist Writer
Hmm... I was taught pan when I learned it. Maybe it was just the variation my professor used...
Reply
:iconmichaelritchie200:
michaelritchie200 Featured By Owner Aug 8, 2007  Hobbyist Writer
[quote]
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."
[/quote]

My best friend is called Katherine and she is so not any of those things! Haha!
Reply
:iconcei-ellem:
Cei-Ellem Featured By Owner Aug 8, 2007  Hobbyist Writer
Yes, but does she go by Katherine or a shortened version, such as Kate or Katie?
Reply
:iconmichaelritchie200:
michaelritchie200 Featured By Owner Aug 8, 2007  Hobbyist Writer
Nope, she's Katherine. Nothing but.
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:iconcei-ellem:
Cei-Ellem Featured By Owner Aug 9, 2007  Hobbyist Writer
Ah. Funny then ^^;
Reply
:iconvertigohipocondriaco:
Sometimes, you get that ironic type in real life. : )
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:iconaiedailwest:
AiedailWest Featured By Owner Jun 7, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
When a baby is born in real life, the parents don't already know what they will be like and name them as such. I've got a Juliette Faith who's second-in-command of my evil army :)
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:iconswordbunny4486:
swordbunny4486 Featured By Owner Jul 28, 2007
interesting.
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:iconcei-ellem:
Cei-Ellem Featured By Owner Jul 29, 2007  Hobbyist Writer
Thanks for the :+fav:
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:iconbosshamster:
Bosshamster Featured By Owner May 27, 2006
Good stuff, I gotta say - although some of the names you've got in the "game" could easily apply to different descriptions than they do. Dimitri Xailez, for instance, could just as easily be a young noble with a dark side - Dimitri suggests a family wealthy enough to name their children whatever they please, and the harsh letters in Xailez could imply a darker edge to a character without relying on knowledge of a code invented by the author herself.

Which is part of the beauty of names, I think - they affect everyone differently, regardless of the description that goes along with them. Fluffy, for example, I could never see as being awfully menacing, whether he had three heads or ninety. :D
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:iconcei-ellem:
Cei-Ellem Featured By Owner May 27, 2006  Hobbyist Writer
Yes, and actually, Dimitri does come from a rather high-born family. The game was just for fun, and really I wrote the whole thing up just as an example of naming techniques. Thanks for reading ^_^.
Reply
:iconstagoya:
Stagoya Featured By Owner Apr 17, 2006
I use some of them, but I never thought of the famous names. I'll definitely have to remember that. ^^
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:iconcei-ellem:
Cei-Ellem Featured By Owner Apr 17, 2006  Hobbyist Writer
It's useful when used in moderation. Actually, (bonus hint) Miles W. Pericu's middle name follows the famous name method.
Reply
:iconxtremedreamz:
XtremeDreamz Featured By Owner Apr 12, 2006
I already do all of these except for the one where you combine words. But now I have a new method to try. Yay! Thanks :)
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:iconcei-ellem:
Cei-Ellem Featured By Owner Apr 12, 2006  Hobbyist Writer
You're welcome! ^_^ This was primarily written because of a friend of mine; he was the one who gave my Darren Starhawk.
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:iconfoolmarquis:
FoolMarquis Featured By Owner Apr 10, 2006
So true, so true... i will never forget adventuring with Bob, the archer. and Bob the fighter, and Bob the ranger...

On the other hand, there is much to be said for Name / Personality dissention: No-one (save a select few) choose their own names, most people can only hope to be born with a sufficiently flexible name to adapt to their personality. For example: THe parents name him William, but the boy chooses Willy, the auto mechanic is Bill, The young hotshot Will, and the CEO finally adresses himself as William.
Reply
:iconcei-ellem:
Cei-Ellem Featured By Owner Apr 10, 2006  Hobbyist Writer
Yes, but that's in the real word. This is for naming fictional characters.
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:iconusagiraleh:
UsagiRaleh Featured By Owner Apr 10, 2006  Hobbyist Photographer
I got them all right :D And yay for Mouse. I wanna work with her some more.
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:iconcei-ellem:
Cei-Ellem Featured By Owner Apr 10, 2006  Hobbyist Writer
Yeah, I miss all those characters, especially Axel and Arrow.
Reply
:iconusagiraleh:
UsagiRaleh Featured By Owner Apr 11, 2006  Hobbyist Photographer
Well we'll have to renew the story this summer
Reply
:iconcei-ellem:
Cei-Ellem Featured By Owner Apr 11, 2006  Hobbyist Writer
I concur.
Reply
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