What's In A Name?

Have you ever heard someone say the phrase, “James doesn’t look like a James,” or “She acts more like a Phyllis than a Rachel”? Or have you said words similar to this yourself, because there’s someone in your life whose name simply doesn’t match their personality? Conversely, what about the people who fit their names so perfectly, you begin to wonder if there are perhaps secret societies of Chads or Marys out there, conspiring to align with set character traits?

It’s a strange intuition we humans have, and I’m not entirely sure there’s any science behind it, but we display it day in, day out. I mean no disrespect to the Chads of the world, but I’ve never met one that wasn’t at his best a little cocky, and at his worst, a total d-bag. And should I meet a Chad who is not self-involved in this way, I would undoubtedly remark, “Chad doesn’t act like a Chad.”

Is it better to exhaustively research, as opposed to simply giving your characters names that feel right?

As I said, I can’t really explain this phenomenon (nor do numerous studies, which only prove the phenomenon exists, but do nothing to solidify it), but I can readily accept it, and run with it where my writing is concerned. I’m pretty meticulous with my characters’ names, changing them often to suit individual personalities, and sometimes taking into account the etymology behind names to add more esoteric meaning, like an Easter egg hidden within my tale. Perhaps most people won’t find that egg, at least on a surface level, but perhaps these meanings and definitions help to inform our intuitive understanding of names as they relate to character and personality.

Whether you fawn over monikers or you just trust your gut, here are some nice resources for giving your characters the perfect name.


A great resource for the researcher is The Very Best Baby Name Book In The Whole Wide World by Bruce Lansky, which appears to be out of print now, though copies of the most recent (1995) edition are available used on Amazon. The cover touts “30,001 Baby Names, complete with meanings, origins and nicknames,” and the book lives up to this touting. Obviously designed to help parents-to-be, the book also lends itself well to the author’s task of naming his or her fictional babies. 

Lansky provides brief descriptions of the meanings behind given names, as well as country of origin. So for instance, if I look up Chad, I’m told that it’s a shortened form of Chadrick, of German and English descent, and it means “mighty warrior.” Perhaps it’s this etymological bravado that turns all Chads into more or less the same person, a kind of collective consciousness that both expects and elicits certain behavior. Lansky certainly thinks so. In the section of his book titled “Stereotypes of Names,” he writes:

Consciously or unconsciously, we all have private pictures of the people who answer to certain names...These pictures come from personal experience as well as from the images we absorb from the mass media and thus may conflict in interesting ways...Marilyn may be the personification of voluptuous femininity until you think of your neighbor who hangs out her clothes wearing a ratty bathrobe, with curlers in her hair and a cigarette dangling out of her mouth.

If you want to go a bit deeper than Lansky’s brief descriptions, check out the website Behind The Name. Here’s what BTN has to say about Chad:

From the Old English name Ceadda which is of unknown meaning, possibly based on Welsh cad "battle". This was the name of a 7th-century English saint. Borne primarily by Catholics, it was a rare name until the 1960s when it started to become more common amongst the general population...

Good information to have, particularly if you’re writing a pre-1960s period piece, in which case you could use Chad in a more subversive way, as the name of a more unique, possibly outcast individual. Just be careful: information on BTN isn’t cited, so you may want to cross-reference other sources.

Of course, one of the best places for name and general word research is the Oxford English dictionary. Looking up Chad here gives you these excellent tidbits:


  • a piece of waste material removed from card or tape by punching. 


1930s: possibly from Scots chad 'gravel, small stones' or dialect chat 'chip of wood'. It is not, as suggested, from the name of Mr. Chadless, inventor of a Chadless Keypunch: no such person has been found. Nor is it formed as an acronym from 'card hole aggregate debris'

So if you’re running with a douchey depiction of someone named Chad, it’s nice to know your rather unlikable character is named for a minuscule piece of garbage. (At this point, I’d like to reassert that I harbor no ill-feelings toward any specific person named Chad, nor people named Chad in general).

The nonexistence of Mr. Chadless notwithstanding, it can be beneficial to be familiar with notable persons sharing your characters’ names, particularly if you enjoy allusions (maybe the most expansive example of this can be found in the TV series Lost, in which numerous characters are named after philosophers.) Aside from the Oxford English Dictionary, the Online Etymology Dictionary provides excellent historical information for given names (and unlike Behind The Name, it’s thoroughly cited). 

Is All This Necessary?

The question here must be asked: is it better to exhaustively research, as opposed to simply giving your characters names that feel right? No, not really. As I said before, some of this information will exist as no more than an Easter egg that only the most well-read or research-inclined individual will catch. However, I do think it’s important to carefully consider the quality of each name and how it affects you, and ask yourself if it’s right for your character. Don't just slap on any old name and call it a day.

Consider this anecdote from the back pages of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, in which the author discusses the conception of his titular heroine. When asked how he came up with such an odd name, Gaiman replied:

It was from typing “Caroline” and it coming out wrong. Larry Niven, the science fiction author, said in an essay that writers should treasure their typing mistakes. Once I typed it, I knew it was somebody’s name, and I wanted to know what happened to her.

I recently discovered it was actually a real name, although it’s not been used much in English-speaking countries for a long time. And, at the turn of the last century, it was a name for a brand of corset.

As you can see, Gaiman did not (at least, initially) pore over books and websites, ensuring his character’s name was pitch-perfect. The name simply struck him as perfect on an instinctual level. Indeed, it does work quite well for this character, who is both of a special mind and somewhat ignored/outcast simultaneously—qualities summed up neatly in her exotic yet unused and forgotten name. His gut told him that Coraline was the correct choice, and he went with it.

Now, consider the alternative: what if Gaiman had called his character Mary, which I feel bears opposite signifiers to Coraline—a fairly popular name, but an ostensibly boring one by today’s standards? For one, the book’s title wouldn’t be near as interesting; for two, Coraline does not embody certain Mary-like traits (for me, I think of timidity coupled with general niceness and perhaps a smidge of insecurity); thus, calling this character Mary would effectively change who Coraline is. 

In short, even if you don’t dig into the deepest wells of a name’s history, at least make sure that it feels right. Because if it’s true we share a collective conscious where names are concerned, the worst thing you can do as a writer is incorrectly christen your character. Readers will see right through the falseness; they’ll say, “This Mary girl doesn’t act like a Mary at all; seems more like a Coraline to me.”

What links do you go to when naming your characters? Are you a researcher/seeker of hidden meanings, or do you just shoot from the hip? Also, what are your impressions of names like Chad and Mary? Do you share my same perceptions, or are they vastly different? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

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postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words January 22, 2014 - 2:46pm

I would love to be able to name characters like Thomas Pynchon does. I absolutely suck at it. I've tried using foreign words, lists of people's names, etc... and they all kinda fall flat. I think I'm better at using words instead of names for characters.

It's also one of Dickens' greatest skills.

Christina Re's picture
Christina Re from the United States is reading something a friend wrote January 22, 2014 - 11:23pm

Names have always seemed pretty important to me, specifically for the main protagonist. How do you make a name stick in someone's head?

I'm currently writing a sci-fi piece in a post-apocalyptic nation. At first my characters had pretty standard European and American names. However, I realized that my story is set a millenia from now, so naming conventions are likely to change. The grandparent figures in my story have virtue names, like the ones used by the Puritans. This worked for a society of people trying to create a good future for their children after being at war for hundreds of years (Clarity, Hope). The next generation was named after what was lost in the War, natural resources and landmarks (River, Mesa). The current generation is named after treasured things, with musical influences and time-based names (Melody, April).

I'd also love to create a name which could become mainstream. How cool would that be?

I decided to use names which are also nouns, and it worked out really well for the story. Also, it makes the characters memorable without being too "out there". I'm bummed that I can't name a character "Aria" because I will always associate that name with Arya Stark.

So yes, names are powerful. Try getting away with naming your character Oprah and not having immediate parallels drawn, I dare you.    

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like January 23, 2014 - 11:49am

I like alliterative names and probably use them too often. I'd say a name's sound is most important to me, and while I generally don't research names, if I know of a name whose meaning (or homonym's meaning) fits thematically, I might try to work with it as symbolism or pun.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like January 23, 2014 - 11:49am

And Chad & Mary don't connote much to me.

CBid's picture
CBid January 23, 2014 - 10:39pm

What's in a name?


The article and Christina Re's comment (above) both mention a point of primary importance for writers to consider when christening their characters: the setting and general time period of the story. Writers who don't place an emphasis upon those two factors when developing characters' names risk the plausibility of almost any story from the outset. There's sure to be exceptions to this sort of conventional wisdom but, generally speaking, most readers aren't going to feel like their time will be well spent if they're too busy trying to suspend their disbelief that a character is named "Neo" or "U-Turn" while reading a story that's set during the Civil War era in the South.

Another point worth considering is that unless there's a contextual reasoning for it (as in Christina Re's explanation of the characters' names in her piece), it's extremely unlikely that a story's given cast would contain more than a few names with any significant meaning behind them. It's just not that believable. If you think back to your school years, chances are, it was a rare occurrence that you ever stumbled across a kid named "Ace Valiant." 

Character names can also tell us about a character's likely background. Name a character "Ezra" and, along with the obvious biblical character's connotations, there's an indication of his parents likely religiosity. This Ezra may in fact be rebelling against this... George Foreman named each of his sons "George." That says something as well. In Martin Amis' "London Fields," garden-variety petty criminal and aspiring dart-tournament contender, Keith Talent, ponders the name for his new-born daughter while watching darts on the tellie, "Keithette." 

There's a lot in the names of our characters.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated January 25, 2014 - 2:29am

In real life people who aren't from small towns in the south (common name for white men there) tend to assume I'm black if they hear/see my name written out.  So just to keep it simple, because the "Oh you're soandso" conversation isn't one I want to write, I try to make it ones people already know and will believe from the background the person has.  All George and Andy and Rebecca and Jose and Wong and Lee.  Nothing I made up, no uncommon names.

RenegadeImage's picture
RenegadeImage from Berkeley, CA is reading The Gods of Tango January 24, 2014 - 11:02am

My current project is a historical novel set along the California coast in the mid-19th century so I've invested quite of bit of time researching character names. The story includes numerous ethnic groups, so I've had to come up with names for Kanakas (Hawaiians), Norweigans, and Irish, among others. I think naming a character is no different than developing the character's backstory (I even have a skinny on people who are only briefly on stage).

Many of my names were lifted from the 1860 and 1870 census records for Mendocino County. I just recombined first and last names in some cases, making sure they fit the character, of course. It was interesting that I found so many Jameses and Williams and Thomases when I was looking for something with a real period feel like Cephas and Raiford. What if Ashley Wilkes had been named Thomas instead? So I mixed it up a little, giving simple names that are period appropriate to some characters (one MC is named Lily) and more old timey names to others. I relied a great deal on the sites dedicated to boys and girls names and was delighted to find sites for "old" Hawaiian and Scottish names.

I also gleaned ideas from books written during a particular period or in a particular place. For instance, I considered "Huck" briefly but then thought better of it ;)

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list January 26, 2014 - 2:28pm

I do a lot of research on names. I've been known to spend hours researching both the first and last name for a character that will reflect who they are or who they will become. Aside from babynames.com, I also use http://www.kabalarians.com/ to do name analysis. There are times when a name just pops into my head though. Sometimes I name a character after someone I know/knew. When it is a period piece, I will look up the history of the name. Names are important to me :)