What’s In a Name?

The naming of characters is something that has always fascinated me, whether when I’m trying to come up with names for my own characters or when I’m reading.  There are a lot of times, especially in realistic or historical fiction when there’s a certain pool of names that were common in the particular setting at that particular time from which a name must be drawn.  Even then, though, why that particular name?

Do I have too much time on my hands that I think about this?  Maybe.  Does that bother me?  Absolutely not!  So, let’s dig into this, shall we?

Sometimes names mean something.  For instance, the name Gandalf in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings means “wand elf” in Old Norse.  I guess ‘wand elf’ and ‘wizard’ do align pretty closely to make it a fitting name (but it’s kind of funny—wand elf).  Many of the names in Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain were real Welsh names, such as Taliesin, which means “shining brow,” and Arawn, whose name was borrowed from that of the mythological Welsh god of the underworld (in Alexander’s novels, Arawn was the chief villain, though not a god).

Many of the names in The Chronicles of Prydain were also chosen because they were names of characters in Welsh mythology that bore similarities to those in the story Alexander wrote.  In both the myths and Alexander’s novels, the character Taliesin was a bard.  In Welsh mythology, also, there was a character named Gwydion, whose name Alexander took for one of the heroes (though the Gwydion of Prydain is very different from that of Welsh mythology).  So, I guess sometimes names can even be used as allusions.

Of course, names can also be ironic.  After all, in Harry Potter, one of the many villainous characters is named ‘Lucius Malfoy.’  Whether or not this was intentional, Rowling still gets credit for a very ironic name.  Names can also be used as red herrings, to confuse readers about the character.  This can coincide with ironic names (a name could be both), and I’m not sure how different these two categories really are.

Some names are just plain made up.  Tolkien did that, as well, in Lord of the Rings, although a great many of his made-up names derived from his invented languages.  Other authors do it in less complicated fashion by simply making up the name with no languages to go with it.

Then, finally the last naming system I could think of.  This is called: Your Sister is Your Editor and She Changes the Name.  It’s probably the easiest way to go, and it’s happened to me more times than I can readily count.  I’ve never regretted the changes, either, but that’s not to say I’d wholly recommend it.

Just in case anyone’s wondering, I’m not saying that writers can’t or don’t just pick a name because they like it.  They definitely do.  I know I do it, and I can’t imagine choosing a name I thought was so weird/ugly/annoying I couldn’t stand to look at it.  If anyone has, I’d love to know why.


For more about name meanings, check out Behind the Name.

Also, there are a variety of websites that talk about Lloyd Alexander and the names he gave to his characters.  I read too many of them.  Just go to Wikipedia.  It pretty much says the same things as the others.  I will say, though, just from the short time I’ve now spent looking at all that Welsh mythology, I can see why Alexander was interested in it.

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