What's in a Name?
“What’s in a name?” Juliet asks on her balcony. “That which we call a
rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Although Shakespeare’s Juliet makes an interesting argument – that names
don’t matter – plenty would disagree with her. Names have practical uses and
often both cultural and emotional significance. Furthermore, as writers, one
of our first responsibilities is usually to name our characters. So, in this
article we’ll take Juliet’s question and answer it from the perspective of
Do you have to give your characters names?
No, you don’t have to; in fact, a few nameless characters have made
literary history. Consider Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier, and Invisible Man by
Ralph Ellison. The authors of these books had excellent reasons for not
naming their protagonists. Ellison’s Invisible Man is a black man who is
invisible in the eyes of society, so his not having a name in the story
makes artistic sense. In Rebecca, the narrator is insignificant compared to
Rebecca, the first Mrs. DeWinter.
Nevertheless, even if you write in first person, as these books were
written, writing without names is inconvenient. If you don’t believe me, try
it! The exercise is bad enough in first person, but if you’re writing in
third, you will soon encounter serious difficulties – especially if you have
more than two characters. In other words, you will discover the primary
reason characters have names – so that you and your readers can tell them
Telling Them Apart
Making sure your readers can distinguish between your characters has
several implications which may differ from what we see in the real world.
One is that characters in your novel will very rarely have the same name.
However, if you were born in 1970 in the United States, chances are that you
know plenty of Michaels and Jennifers, because according to the Social
Security Administration, Michael and Jennifer were the most popular names
given to babies that year. To check this out for any year going as far back
as 1880, check out the following link:
This link is also an excellent resource for anyone wanting to write an
American story with people who lived from 1880 to the present. And, if you
click on it, you will discover that the names Mary and John were the
favorites for many years.
Speaking of Mary and John, in Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë uses the names
“Mary” and “John” frequently, but never in a way that confuses the reader.
For example, many of the Johns and Marys are bit parts, throwaway characters
appearing on stage for only a scene or two, such as servants in various
grand houses. Even when they are more significant, they appear in separate
sections of the novel, again keeping the readers from becoming confused.
In order to help your readers keep your characters distinct in their
minds, there are several things you can do. First, make the names dissimilar
from each other – especially first letters. It is hard on your reader if you
call one important character Mary, another Marie, and another Maria. If you
can’t get away from this – for example, you’re writing about real people and
they happened to have inconvenient-to-remember names – then consider adding
titles or descriptions to help your readers keep your characters straight –
or even replace the names with nicknames. For example, the emperor Caligula,
although his given name was Gaius Iulius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, was
called Caligula, which means “little boot.”
J K Rowling, in order to help her readers remember some of the vast set
of names in the Harry Potter series, often uses alliteration for the
characters whose first names don’t appear that frequently. Therefore we
have: Severus Snape, Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff – you get the idea.
Note something important: when you, as the author, name a character, you
signal the reader that this character is worth remembering. If a character
is not worth remembering, you may prefer to dispense with a name, and simply
refer to that character by his or her role in your story. For example, you
could call the policeman “the policeman,” or the grocer “the grocer,” or the
taxicab driver “the taxicab driver.” After all, in real life, we often
interact with people without knowing their names.
Names as a Reflection of Society
The way people are named in your novel should reflect the culture of the
characters and its setting. Even in a book set recently, the names the
characters choose – or those chosen by their fictional parents – will be
influenced by their groups within society. For example, a character with
parents from Mexico may have a different name than a character whose parents
came out of Poland or China. Selected names may also reflect levels of
education or other items important to characters or their society. In fact,
even though you may think that Tom is as likely a name for the characters
from Mexico, China and Poland – especially if their families would want to
assimilate – you may exaggerate the differences, in order to help your
readers keep your characters straight in their minds. (Yes, this is
stereotyping, but stereotyping can be useful.)
Names and how they’re given can also reflect the society in other ways,
and if you’re writing about a different era, you may need to do some
research to get it right. For example, in the Roman republic, women were
always named after their fathers. The two daughters of Marc Antony were both
called Antonia – but major and minor were added to distinguish them. For
more on this subject click here:
Here’s a quote on some of the naming customs among Native Americans
“… a father among some of the northern Athapascan tribes lost his name as
soon as a male child was born and was henceforth called after the name of
his son; a Thlingchadinne changed his name after the birth of each
successive child, while an unmarried man was known as the child of his
For more on this, try the following link:
The above two examples only scratch the surface of what can be done with
the names in a society. If you’re writing, for example, science fiction or
fantasy and thus inventing your society, naming conventions can
help you define it.
Events and Situations
Names may reflect events and situations important to the character.
Children and characters may be named to reflect certain events. For example,
many black girls were named “Emancipation” just after Lincoln’s Emancipation
Proclamation. Rulers or generals have historically often given themselves an
extra name to celebrate great military conquests – for example Germanicus
and Britannicus – or simply renamed themselves to celebrate greatness in
general – e.g., Augustus.
Names are often changed to signal changed situations for the character –
for example, many women take their husbands’ last names when they marry, or
when the Pope becomes Pope, he becomes rechristened. Or, as described above,
a man may be named for his youngest son.
Occasionally these names will not be formal names, but simply nicknames.
In these cases they may be very descriptive: Edward I of England, was known
as Longshanks because of his great height. Or, to return to Harry Potter,
the hero himself is known as “The-Boy-Who-Lived” – because, of course, he
lived when he should have died.
Meanings of Names
Many authors give their characters names that are representative or
evocative of their personalities. This technique has been going on for
millennia. Let’s return to Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet and consider the
names of some of his characters:
Romeo – similar to romance
Mercutio – quick and mercurial
Tybalt – makes
me think of a bolt of lightning, even though according to at least one
source on the internet, its Latin meaning is actually “one who sees”
J K Rowling does this frequently as well. She calls one of her werewolves
Remus Lupin. The source of these names: Remus (one of the twins who founded
Rome, and supposedly raised, even suckled by a female wolf) Lupin (Lupin is
related to Latin for wolf). The character Sirius Black transforms himself
into a black dog upon occasion, and as you probably know, Sirius, according
to Greek mythology, was one of the dogs of the great hunter Orion.
So, to answer Juliet’s question, “What’s in a name?” Plenty! In fact, in
this little column we have barely scratched the surface.
Juliet, that sweet, star-crossed idealist would have done well to
recognize this fact and realized that she should not try separating Romeo
from the name Montague. If she had done so she might have survived, but the
world would lack a great and glorious tragedy.
If you have questions or comments, about this article or others, please
contact me at
Grossackva at Yahoo dot com.
This article is the sole property
of the author. It is produced here with the author's permission. The unauthorized use or reprinting of an article is
illegal, and will be
prosecuted at the discretion of the
Fiction Fix Home Page
About the Writer:
Victoria Grossack is, with Alice Underwood, the
author of Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus, which, by
the way, is an excellent example of a book with plot-driven chapters and
cliffhangers. There's exciting news about Iokaste: even the
Greeks are reading it! Learn more about Iokaste and other books
in the series at
Victoria was a moderator of a critique group
for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the
Historical Fiction workshop for Coffeehouse for Writers.