What’s in a Character’s Name?

How do you go about selecting names for your characters?

In a short story, flash fiction, quick piece of poetry, or example, a name can be just that: a name. It might not even be a full name. Sometimes, the reader will not even learn the name of the character at all.

In longer pieces of writing, such as novels, names are a much more important element. They do not always have to have deep significance, although they could always portray a hint of what their character is like. Think of Remus Lupin from the Harry Potter books, whose first name references Remus and Romulus, who were raised by wolves, and whose surname is a form of the Latin word for “moon”. His name is one big clue to the secret that he is a werewolf.

Names can be a significant part of our characters in other ways, too. Sticking with the Harry Potter theme, let’s think about Albus Dumbledore. It would have made no difference to the story if his name had been Jack Smith, but there’s no denying it would have robbed the character of some of his power. The name alone is designed to impress upon the reader a certain sense of awe about the character – in the same way that calling a character Judas will give the reader a distinct impression.

In the same sense, silly or ridiculous names can distract readers from a serious story. It can be amusing to give a character a quirky name, but think carefully before you do – you may be giving them this name forever, and you do not want a bad name to stick.

It is important, therefore, not to simply pick a character’s name out of a hat at random. It is a careful decision to make, even more so when it is an invented name. Having a list of words and names – real, invented, or both – is always a good idea for an eager writer. Many of these may never amount to anything – but when you find the right name, you will be thankful you took the time to make your decision.

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