What’s in a name?

When Marilla Cuthbert first meets Anne Shirley, she asks the 11-year-old orphan girl what her name is.

“Will you call me Cordelia?” she asks.

Anne goes on to explain that she despises her “plain, sensible” name, but thinks it would be perfectly lovely to be called what she considers such an elegant name. Marilla declines, and Anne reluctantly accepts being called by her real name, although with the caveat that it always includes the “e” on the end.

Thus, Anne “with an e,” though plainly named, cements herself as one of the most beloved of literary characters.

One of my favorite parts of writing is naming my characters. I have always loved the history of names. I read my first baby name book cover to cover when I was 8, loving the discovery of their origins and meanings. So when it comes time to naming my own characters, I have a lot of fun! But just as one poorly conceived plot device ruin a good book, so can an ill-named character take the reader out of the story.

Here’s a few of my rules when naming characters:

ShakespeareChoose a name you like. 

Seems kind of silly, doesn’t it? But just like naming your children, this is a name that is going to stick with you with for a long time, depending on how fast you write, or how successful the story has been. Make sure it’s something you’re going to like for the long haul.

Choose a name that suits the character. 

In early draft of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, her spoiled Southern belle was named “Pansy O’Hara.” Can you imagine “Pansy” vowing to never go hungry again, or helping Melanie have a baby while a battle raged on around them? Thank goodness someone made her change the name to the now iconic “Scarlett!” When I started writing my murder mystery, the protagonist’s male co-sleuth was named “Reed Spencer.” But after writing just a few pages of “Reed,” I just couldn’t stand him. He wasn’t a Reed! Today, “Drew Spencer” is helping Mira solve murders!

Choose a name that works with your story’s genre and time period.

Seems simple, but I hate, hate, HATE it when I read a story that features a protagonist named something that utterly doesn’t fit with that time period or genre. Think of a cowboy romance with a heroine named “Tiffany” or “Arwen.” Or maybe a futuristic sci-fi adventure with characters named “Herman” and “Mabel.” Just doesn’t seem to work, right? It goes the same way with modern fiction: if your character was born in the 1980s, most likely her name would be something like “Jennifer” or “Jessica,” two of the most popular names of that decade, rather than something funky, like “Legend” or “Naveah.” And if you want a funky name, make sure there’s a reason for it, other than “I’m a writer and I can do what I want.” (Good reason, but probably won’t hold up with your publisher.) A great resource is the Social Security website, which lists the most popular names by decade going back to 1880.

AnneChoose a name that your readers or target audience can pronounce. 

This one’s a personal pet peeve of mine. Don’t spell your character’s name in such a way that your reader doesn’t know how to pronounce it. Unless they are listening to an audio book, it’s hard to know how an oddly-spelled name is pronounced. The exception: fantasy stories often have unusual names, but there is usually a hint from others on how to pronounce it (“rhymes with BLANK,” etc.).

Of course, sometimes we can’t control our character’s names any more than we as writers can control them. L.M. Montgomery stated in her autobiography, The Alpine Path, that the character of Anne Shirley just came to her, fully fleshed out and named, down the all-important “e.”

So, how do you decide what to name your characters? Are they named after someone in particular? Or do they just come to you?

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Stephanie Ludwig is a former reporter turned public relations professional who loves Jesus and writing about mysteries, music, and murder. She is an avid L.M. Montgomery fan, and collects anything having to do with Anne of Green Gables.

11 thoughts on “What’s in a name?”

  1. Good points all, Stephanie. I’ve used several methods in naming my characters, sometimes it’s just looking at my bookshelves at author names. 🙂 In my current series, I’ve used names that have meaning that fits the character, but the meaning isn’t obvious unless you’re a serious studier of names. In my Risking Love novel, the H/H are named Caleb and Corliss (Lissa) – both names mean heart. In my upcoming release, the heroine is Callista (Callie) which means most beautiful, and she’s someone who struggles to see the beauty God created in her.

    1. I like doing the meaning of names, too, Brenda, except when I HATE the sound of a name but love the meaning! But you’ve found some good ones for your story. Just curious, since both examples of heroines you give go by their nicknames instead of full names: was that deliberate? Too formal to go by the longer names? I LOVE long, romantic names, but as a person with a three-syllable, nine-letter first name, I understand the inclination to shorten. I suppose that’s why my two WIPs have heroines named Brett and Mira.

      1. The names were too formal for 20-something women, and I didn’t really care for the name Corliss, but it was a name that her parents would have named her. 🙂 And both Corliss and Callista are called by their full names by their parents, of course!

  2. This is great — love Anne with an ‘e’. And isn’t Marilla Cuthbert the perfect name for Marilla? Imagine her as a Melody or a Prudence…just wouldn’t work! The one thing I read a while ago and tend to agree with is no naming major characters with names that sound alike or even start with the same letter. Shame on Carolyn for pairing Nancy with Ned. LOL But I have been confused especially if there are significant secondary characters that have similar names. Like Jerry and Terry. 🙂

    1. Ooh, similar names! I TOTALLY agree with that one. Let’s be fair, most of us avid readers don’t read slowly or deliberately; we race through books because we love the story! But if two characters’ names are too similar, I have found myself having to slow down and really pay attention. Although Nancy and Ned aren’t TOO bad, since they sound so different. But I wouldn’t pair my character Mira with a Mike. (And yes, Marilla is the perfect name for her– and I love “Rilla-MY-Rilla” in the later books!)

  3. I can’t imagine Anne being anything other than Anne! One of my pet peeves is when people use CURRENT popular baby names for adults in a story. Ugh. That’s why I like the classics! lol!

  4. I use different ways depending on whether I’m writing a contemporary or a fantasy novel. With fantasy, I look up different languages and search for specific words that have meaning like what I’m trying to convey. In my first fantasy novel my evil witch was named Vanus. Sounds poisonous, doesn’t it? She was a vile character. In contrast, my Amazonian female angel was named Theron. Theron loves battles but is quite clumsy. Her name Theron means hunter/untamed. It really fit her personality. Naming my characters is one of my favorite parts.

    1. That’s totally fun, Dawn! I hadn’t even thought about languages, but then again, I don’t write fantasy. Is Vanus pronounced ‘VAN-us” or “VAIN-us?”

  5. My character’s names do sort of “come to me” but then, I send them through the time period and location tests to be sure they will ring true. I have been known to make a family tree of my characters’ names to make sure they logically fit. If someone with a lot of James and Richards in the family suddenly names a boy River, there must be a good reason. The reason for the name can become a part of the story too. It’s all a part of creating real, three dimensional characters.BTW: I can’t imagine hearing Scarlett’s dad call her anything but Katie Scarlett in that rich Irish brogue.Pansy? Oh my.

    1. Family trees are totally fun to make, Jenny! My very, very first novel (that I attempted to write at age 14 and got about 40 pages in) included a family tree because it was a family reunion and I wanted to keep all of the relatives straight. I like incorporating that into the story!

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