Word Wisdom – Names

Posted: December 19, 2011 in Word Wisdom, Writing
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

It's always important to note the meaning of a name, as well as any religious/historical significance it might have. Peter means "rock."

Names are very important to me. I think it stems from the fact that I hate mine – Karen. Karen. For some reason it has just never sat well with me. The only women I know who are named Karen are older than me – at least by one generation, if not two. I know there are those out there who are my age and share my name, but I have grown up with the notion that my name is old fashioned. Not that there is anything wrong with that. I love old world names, but mine just feels…commonly old.

It’s also incredibly hard to find a nickname that suits my name. I go by “Kay” for short on the internet, to make it easier and in case I don’t want to give out my real name. But no one calls me that. And I just don’t have any good nicknames that are publicly acceptable. (“Karebear,” while still endearing, is so second grade.)

So, needless to say, I’m fascinated by other names. I love the way they sound, especially the unique ones. I love the different spellings. And I especially love the meanings. I love how certain names can conjure up certain images. Vladimir is a dark name, one that may be associated with a vampire or a villain. Whereas Charles is a strong name that I often associate with a refined man, someone who is worthy of the title of “hero.”

But nicknames are important, too! Charles might be a name associated with a grown man in a business suit, but Charlie brings about images of little boys and chocolate factories. Chuck is a silly name – maybe used for a goofy teenager who is one burger short of a combo meal.

And meanings! Oh, name meanings. My current novel has over four hundred characters. The reader doesn’t even meet or know half of them, but I made sure that I did. And I handpicked every single name. Every single name has significance. That’s how important I think the meanings of names are.

For example, take a look at a YA series that I love: Percy Jackson and the Olympians. The main character’s name is Percy, short for Perseus. His mother named him that because the original Perseus was (one of) the only Greek heroes who had a happy ending. You better believe that’s important.

But what about some other novels? In Great Expectations, Pip’s love interest is Estella (“star”). She’s somewhat of a cruel person, and is just as unattainable as her name suggests. Or what about Prince Prospero from “The Masque of the Red Death”? It’s both significant – he is a wealthy (“prosperous”) nobleman – and ironic – his wealth does no good in saving him from a similar fate to anyone else (rich or poor) who happens across the Red Death. And what about those classic faerie tales? The name “Snow White” may have been a description of her skin, but the meaning is much deeper than that – it is a representation of her purity.

So, have I convinced you yet? Please say that I have! Some readers are very quick to understand the meaning of a name in your novel. It’ll be like a little treat for them, a little Easter egg hidden away in the pages of your book. I know I usually pick up on mythological allusions when I happen by them. Others might not be so fast to realize what you’ve done, but you’d be surprised what the subconscious is able to grasp that the conscious isn’t. You can use names as a clue to someone’s past (like using the name Amira (“princess”) for a young woman running away from her kingdom) or their personality (like Felix (“happy”) for someone who is always upbeat).

You might be surprised at what you’ve chosen as a character name already. Maybe you chose Sybil as the name of your Diviniation professor, without realizing it meant “Prophetess.” (Yes, that is a Harry Potter reference. I am also 258% positive that Jo chose that name on purpose. If you aren’t already aware, look at a list of the names of the characters in that series and start looking up their meanings. She knew exactly what she was doing when she picked out each one.) Or, perhaps, you’ve written a storyline for a man named Derek, who is always down on his luck and can never quite manage to stick up for himself. It might surprise you, then, that his name means “People Ruler.” That wouldn’t be appropriate, now would it? (Unless you’re using it in irony!)

Oh, and here’s something really strange. I just started a new project and I was having such trouble picking out the name for my main character (which is SO not like me). In the end, I went with a name that I love, and one that has circulated through my family for a while: Hannah. It turns out that the meaning (“grace”) was perfect for my storyline. I came up with a middle name and a last name for her as well. When one of the other characters in the story did some numerology to find out her “name number” I made sure I came up with real results. The weird part? My character’s number is a 7 based on the name that I chose for her. I already knew her personality before I chose to find out her name number, yet the number and her personality match perfectly. How cool is that?

So, here’s the real point: names are powerful. There’s a reason why Rumpelstiltskin was obsessed with them. They’re significant. They’re important. Use that to your advantage.

My favorite site to go to is BabyNames.com. They’ve got a huge catalogue and it is really easy to search for a name to find the meaning (plus an indication of the gender and nationality). You can also use their advanced search to look for names that start and end with certain letters, have certain meanings, a certain amount of syllables, or have a certain origin. The “meaning” search is my favorite, and it can be so helpful when you’re looking for that perfect name for your character.

So, what do you guys think about names? Are they significant to you, or don’t you bother with them? Do you have any sites that you frequent that are good at helping you decide? I’m always up for more resources!

  1. Kaitlin says:

    Oh. Oh I love you so much 😀 Yes a thousand times yes. Most every name in our novels has reason. We have one character named “Owen” which means “Salvation” and guess who one of the heroes of the book is? ^_^ I’ll admit, there’s a few I just made up, but I think that if every last name is hitting you over the head with symbolism, it gets a little monotonous – “Oh, we know what this character’s role is, duh.” (unless you’re in things like Percy Jackson and the characters names are the original characters… I mean. Zeus is Zeus is Zeus.)

    For the most part though, yeah! Name symbolism all the way!

    • The love is reciprocated! Names are just fascinating. I completely agree, though – you don’t want to go overboard. As long as the symbolism is subtle enough, you can run with this concept. Otherwise, it does need to be a bit more discreet. And I’m also ALL for making names up. Creativity (and name symbolism!) all the way. 🙂

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