The Name Game

English: British versions of the Harry Potter ...

British Versions of the Harry Potter Series (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every so often, I’ll meet someone who compliments my name with something like: “Oh, Sarah is my favorite girl name. If I’d had a daughter, she would have been Sarah.”

And then there are the times that I meet someone with a name that I like. Yes, there are a couple girl names that Thomas and I picked before we knew we would have boys, but more often, I’ll meet someone named Emma or Jake, and I’ll open my mouth and start to say they’re my favorites… then stop myself because I can’t say I ever would have given my children those names. You see, those names belong to my characters.

Maybe it’s just natural that I became a writer because I certainly couldn’t have enough children to use the dozens of names on my list. When I first started writing fiction, one of the perks was that my characters could have the names that I love – or just the opposite: I could give the antagonists names I didn’t like, therefore delivering a little poetic justice.

I never went much further than that with regard to naming, except when I started to write fantasy, I made up names, as well. And that’s when I got into trouble. I workshopped my middle grade fantasy with a number of other writers, and I realized that I should have been paying better attention. Two names in particular jumped out at the other writers. One made them think of a particular Disney cartoon character that I had forgotten existed, and the other made them think of Nazis. Whoops.

I happened to remember reading something about J.K. Rowling and how she chose names for the Harry Potter series. Harry was a name she had always loved, so it was natural that she give it to the main character. Other names, however, she carefully chose by reading Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. I immediately went to the nearest Barnes & Noble and bought a copy.

The Naming Books

The Naming Books

The book was almost 900 pages, and I read it cover-to-cover. I couldn’t use names that Rowling had already used, such as “Argus” (for Argus Filch), but I did find others that suited my needs – and their characters – much better than the names I originally chose. I also went to my favorite used bookstore Chamblin Bookmine and picked up German-to-English and Latin-to-English dictionaries. Then I discovered a great website www.behindthename.com, which has meanings of names from a vast number of cultures. Then I began the laborious process of renaming.

Whereas before, when I picked many names willy-nilly, now every single one had a purpose. I even carefully looked into the meanings of my favorites to make sure they were still appropriate. What I was somewhat surprised to learn was that two names in particular already had meanings (one of them strangely specific) that fit perfectly with those characters’ personalities and preferences. Other names didn’t fit at all, so I tossed them. And as for the ones that I just made up out of my head… well, I had to be a lot more careful not to make the book sound like Nazi Germany.

Since it was a fantasy, for the made up names I turned to my foreign language dictionaries (sometimes supplemented by information I found on the internet) to make new words that had a meaning for both me and the story. It took months, but once I found my method, it was much easier to assign new names.

I recently read an article in Authors Publish Magazine addressing this very issue. Give it a read to discover another author’s method behind assigning names (specifically for novels set in the United States).

When Thomas and I named our children, we didn’t just pick names out of thin air. We scoured the baby name book, looking for names and meanings that we liked. We knew that our children would have to live with their names for at least eighteen years, and we hoped that they would like the names we gave them and choose to go by them their whole lives. I even chose special middle names for them – names of two of my favorite characters, who also happen to be brothers.

Many authors are like me and have children of their own, but many don’t. Either way, our stories are our babies, in a very real sense, and the names we choose are important, even if that may seem laughable to someone who doesn’t write. So if I meet you, and you happen to be Stella or Michael or Lucian or Ingrid (I could keep going forever, I’m afraid), and I give a little smile upon hearing your name, know that it’s another of my favorites, and you may read it in one of my novels one day.

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4 thoughts on “The Name Game

  1. releaf1954 says:

    Mary recommended behindthename.com to me when I was struggling to name the folks in my last NaNoWriMo novel. I had been thinking about this novel for years and had picked out some names, but when I went back to actually try and write the novel, I realized I had chosen some names with ambiguous pronunciations. I knew what they were in my own mind, but anyone reading them would have to wonder. I decided to go easy on anyone who might actually, someday, read the novel, and gave my characters more straightforward names. Now if I ever finish the novel and let anyone read it, they won’t have to be confused about the names. I know what you mean about made-up names. I was surprised to find out that a name I thought I made up was a real name in Hindu mythology. We do have to check these things out. 🙂

  2. Jeyna Grace says:

    True! Our stories are our babies. I think I have overused a particular name because I like it enough to name my kid after.

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