The Importance of Characters’ Names
“Call me Ishmael” is the famous first line of the classic novel by Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”. If the reader knows his Bible (The Old Testament particularly) he/she may be able to make the connection with the son of Abraham, who is an illegitimate son that is cast aside after his brother Isaac (Who is legitimate) is born. By calling his protagonist and narrator Ishmael, Melville turns him into an outcast. The name of the antagonist of this novel, Captain Ahab is also a biblical name that belonged to an evil king that once ruled Israel. This king, who did not believe in anything but fighting, died in battle (Wright). The references the names provide give the reader more insight into the characters and their destiny. Insights of this nature can only happen when the writer is thoughtful when naming a character.
Knowing the background or meaning of names can often be useful to add another layer of meaning or symbolism to one’s characters. It gives more depth to these characters and is an interesting resource at the disposal of authors everywhere at the disposal of authors. Although it is not that noticed anymore, names still mean something and are very important in the construction of a character for stories throughout the world. It is not the same to be called “Johnny” than being called “Griselda”, or “Tatiana” Or “Dimitris”. Those names suggest different backgrounds and identities. An interesting example can be found in the HBO series “Game of Thrones”, this cinematic worldwide phenomenon had names such as “Daenerys Targaryen”, which is a mix of Greek and Hebrew and translates to something like “God is the judge of my destruction”. Which, as a fan of the series may know from watching the series or read the books, is incredibly significant to the character.
Equally significant to his character is the name “Jon Snow”, which, put simply, lets the audience/readers know that he is an outcast. It also reinforces the idea that he is an illegitimate son that does not belong in his family, or anywhere, in particular, a nobody (Martin). This can be known as winter-based names have an implication of distance and, as described in the show, the name “Snow” was that of a bastard.
Where “Daenerys” is exotic and has a complex origin, “Jon” is familiar and simple. The names of these characters also reflect aspects of their personality and their relationship with others. Jon is close to the common man, does not have a family or a clear identity, while Daenerys is royalty, belongs to an ancestral family, and has a very concrete idea of who she is. George R.R Martin, the author of the Game of Thrones novels, has explained his initial process of coming up with character names and how worldbuilding has changed that process for him. Creating worlds with extensive lore can lead one to repeat names and adopt different recognizable styles for the groups and families that inhabit that world. The Lannister family from this series has names that begin with “T” and “I” (Tyrion, Tywin, Tytos) and the Stark family tends to have a “Brandon” in every generation. For beginners, however, he recommends the same advice that was given to him, which is to avoid similar names for characters, so readers do not get confused (Martin).
Similar advice is given by Stephen King in his book “On Writing”, where he explains that characters should have names that are easy to pronounce and sound well when said out loud. He also explains that names should be one of the first things to come up when creating a new character since the name will affect and influence whom he/she turns out to be. Lastly, he recommends the reader to “have fun” with the names and to make them as real and close to them as possible (King, 190-192).
Renowned Latin-American author Jorge Luis Borges also has stated that he always tries to accommodate his characters' names to the context in which they act. He took special care in balancing “local color” (Hispanic names) with international while still being faithful to the historical context of the story and ethnic background. This and every other aspect that authors take into account is mostly done to achieve authenticity. Borges insists on creating characters from people that existed and carefully chooses the names he puts them, so they sound true to him, and more importantly, they sound true to the reader. It seems to be the case that choosing a name is more complex than what one would think at first glance. If a writer that is very critical of their work finds that his characters and their names sound true, then they probably will sound true for their readers as well (Borges 17).
It is an even balance mostly, to come up with a name that suits perfectly a character, although not everything explained in this article needs to be used always, since there are great novels and stories where the main characters do not have names (See, “The Road” by Cormac MacArthur, “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells, or most of the short stories written by Lovecraft). Names are ultimately another element or device that can aggregate several layers of meaning to any narrative.
Borges, Jorge Luis. El Aprendizaje del Escritor/Borges on Writing. Penguin Random House Group, 1972.
King, Stephen. (2000). On Writing. Scribner, 2000.
Martin, George. “George RR Martin on Coming up with Character Names” YouTube, uploaded by Aegon Targaryen, 03 May. 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zfffCzEZwqI.
Wright, Nathalia. Melville's Use of the Bible. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1949.