How Important are Character Names?

Names are interesting because there is a history to them and how they have evolved over the years.  Some names are newer than others like Haley, Riley, Tanner, and Hunter compared to Mary, Emily, John, and David.

I find that I don’t think about character’s names specifically before I begin writing a story, unless a name just fits a character.  Then it’s one of those wonderful light bulb moments.  I spend my time developing my characters first and then the name seems to follow.  I think that when I try too hard to find that “perfect” character name, then I get stuck. 

In my Emily Stone series, I had a little bit of trouble picking a name that would fit my heroine.  I went through a list of names and they just didn’t seem to fit.  I tried more hip and popular names you hear today and they didn’t work either.  The name “Emily” conjured up an image of a wholesome, girl next-door image, but obviously I put a twist on that because she can kick butt when she needs to and does it often.  Not to mention, she carries not one but two hidden firearms most of the time. 

I thought it would be fun to find out what my name means, not using the urban dictionary.  “Jennifer” is derived from “Guinevere” meaning “white ghost”, “white phantom” or “white wave”. 

How cool is that? 

I think all of those meanings would make great book titles.  My last name “Chase” has been referred to as meaning “hunter”.  So… Jennifer Chase is the White Wave Hunter or White Ghost Hunter?  That sounds like a story about a surfer who’s hunting down the perfect wave or searching for a new reality show. 

The name Jennifer hasn’t been around that long, basically since the late 1880s.  Jennifer became very popular in the early 1970s after the novel and then the movie Love Story came out with Ryan O’Neil and Ali McGraw.  Now there are many talented and beautiful actresses that have the name “Jennifer”:  Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Garner, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Jennifer Connelly.

It’s fun and interesting to find out what’s in a name.  Take some time when you’re plotting out characters to find out what the names you’ve chosen really mean.  You might be surprised what you come up with in the process.

Please share some of your character’s names and why you chose them.

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About jchasenovelist

Published thriller author, criminologist, and blogger.
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5 Responses to How Important are Character Names?

  1. I am probably the worst writer in the world with names. I have a problem with plopping something down on the page just to keep me moving along. I don’t want to stop the creative juices to research a name that is unique or fun sounding. This usually bites me in the rear later. The name game is important and I return to my project during a lull in writing and work out different characters for the ones I hastily created. If I don’t do it early in the story though, I run the risk of confusing their identity later on. One of these days I’ll get organized and think of cool names before I start. Until then, I’ll keep putting down the Michael Jackson’s and George Lucas’ and Peter Livermore’s of my past. Sheesh! Great Post Jennifer!


  2. Roxanne Bland says:

    I find it easy (most of the time) to create names for my characters. Once I have the character down, the name just sort of pops out at me. One of the few problems I had was for a character with a different-sounding name and odd spelling, and my editor convinced me that readers would stumble over it, taking away from the reading experience. So then I had to figure out a new name. That was hard.


  3. I put a lot of effort into naming characters. I feel that the name, as you outlined above in your piece, can evoke certain characteristics in your characters, since in real life the same seems true. Sometimes it’s fun to play against expectation too, naming a character in such a way as to hide certain things about them.
    It’s no surprise to me that a lot of the most well known characters in written fiction have memorable and unique handles: Sherlock Holmes, Humbert Humbert, Atticus Finch, Holly Golightly. And then there are the names going somewhat against type: does Philip sound like a detective? No but Marlowe does. I like how that seems to work.

    My own name, Gareth, is Welsh in origin and seems to mean gentle. It was also the name of one of King Arthur’s Knights. Now I never knew that as a young boy but I have often been considered gentle and kind. I asked my mother later in life why she picked the name and it was because it was unique (for Scottish boys) and sounded nice to her. So there you go.

    When writing my novel Monsters, my lead character had to have an interesting name and I called him Doyle Godwin. Doyle was a detective and so the first name was a nod to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Godwin, which is a derivative of God’s One or Good One, seemed to fit for a character. Several of the other characters have meanings to the names, some of which are readily apparent and some only to those who care to delve a bit.


  4. markhstevens says:

    Always a challenge ! Should you be obvious, subtle, bury ‘clues’ or should the names just sound interesting and have a good variety to them? I have heard of authors who insist no two last names in a single novel will start with the same letter. Really? Do you not think a reader can keep track? (Or maybe the author can’t keep track.) Sure, if they were all a variety of Smith, Sharp, Sanders, Smythe and Smart (like Maxwell) might make sense, but is that real? Who was/is the best at names? Charles Dickens? Tony Hillerman? Who is memorable? What makes that name memorable….or is it all the fabulous character work that goes into giving that name meaning? I developed Allison Coil as the lead name for my series because, well, I just liked it. I did like “coil” as a noun, of course, and all its tense implications. At least, tense to me. But is that enough? Should I have put more thought into it? (Okay, the answer is probably yes…). Good piece!


  5. I have trouble naming characters too. I love your idea of finding the meaning of a name and adapting it for a title. By the name of my series character is Jennifer. Nice post.


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