Did you ever pretend to be someone else as a kid? Pick a different name and probably adopt a different personality to go along with it? Even when people change their names as adults, they do so because they feel this new moniker somehow embodies a crucial part of their identity as a human being that their naturally given one did not.
Names, although mere words, play a massive role in shaping us. It’s one of the first words we actually learn. The very first one we associate as distinctly “me.” Our names impact everything from how people perceive us to even how we subconsciously see ourselves.
Of course, that sounds rather melodramatic when considered in a day-to-day context. We aren’t struck by any profound sensation of discovery or gratification when someone says our name. But at the same time, we get angry or annoyed when someone repeatedly mispronounces or misspells them, or even calls us by the wrong one. For some reason, people have always confused Jessica with Jennifer. I’m not a Jennifer. Jennifer was the rebellious and indifferent teenage daughter of my next door neighbours when I was a kid. Definitely not me.
So who knows for certain whether our names make us or we make them. We’ll leave that question for the philosophers. One thing we can agree upon as writers, however, is that names are very important things. They are far more than just words. They are a crucial piece of who are characters are. They connect us to them for the first time. A single word and bam! There they are in your mind. This is why picking out the right name is so important, and many of us will go through pages upon pages of baby name sites with the same indecisive fervour of expecting parents.
Names don’t just have to fit who we feel our characters are. They can also be fun ways to build your character’s backstory and construct their lives before you knew them. Below I’ll introduce the two main characters from my current project, Within, and explain the meaning behind their names. The hidden meanings and personal touches infuse a sense of authenticity that is critical in our bond with our characters and our readers’ understanding of them.
Luna Evan Carlisle is the main character of Within. The book is written from her perspective, when she’s a 20-going-on-21 young woman returning to her home town after a year of recurring dreams have drawn her back. When I first started naming Luna, I just went online and read some of my favourite names. There were a lot that sounded nice, but none of which fit her personality as it was building in my head.
Luna is sweet, and on the outside, she’s always been viewed as a goody-two-shoes. She’s the girl your parents would encourage you to hang out with when you say that you didn’t have any friends at school. But Luna isn’t just that. She represses a lot of selfishness, a lot of negativity and jealousy. She’s buried a lot of herself underneath her pristine exterior, and because of that, she has another side her parents and friends have never known. This dark side that slowly begins to unravel and eclipse everything in her life as the story progresses.
I could only imagine that Luna, a Latin word that still means “moon” in many languages today, was the perfect fit for her.
When naming characters, it’s important to consider the role that their parents play. Two hippies aren’t going to have a son named William or a daughter named Margaret. And likewise, the prim and proper Mr. and Mrs. probably wouldn’t name their child Axel or Wylde.
Evan is a family name, given to Luna because it belonged to her grandfather. Her parents struggled to conceive her and knew they’d probably never be fortunate enough to have a son, so they decided to bestow the honour of a family name on her. This little tidbit probably isn’t that important to the story on a surface level, but the fact that Luna is like a gift to her parents, a bright spot (another place the moon meaning comes in), it explains why they’re so protective over her in the book. It’s why she’s even a year older than most of the students in her year at university, because she wasn’t enrolled in kindergarten until she was almost 6.
Carlisle is the most arbitrary part of Luna’s name. With surnames, I don’t try to do too much other than pick a type of ethnicity for my characters and choose a name that I think fits accordingly. Carlisle is of English origin, and like many American families today, Luna’s family still bears the surname of the original ancestors who immigrated from Europe.
I should start off by clarifying Hook’s name isn’t actually Hook. It’s the nickname Luna has called him by since they were in elementary school. I didn’t even actually choose this name. Hook was what the girl called her male friend in the dream that inspired the relationship between Luna and Hook. The first thing I thought of when I recalled it was, naturally, Peter Pan. So I did some reading and discovered some interesting things.
Peter Pan was originally supposed to be the villain, and Captain Hook was later added as a distraction for the audience while the settings and actors changed in the background. In other words, he was merely an instrument of something much larger than himself.
Captain Hook is also pursued relentlessly by a crocodile, who has never been able to shake the taste of him after the bite that took off his hand. A ticking clock that the crocodile swallowed alerts Hook to its impending arrival, so he’s always aware that something is sneaking up on him.
I incorporated this into the book in subtle ways, and explain the nickname in Within as a remnant of Luna and Hook’s childhood, one spent playing pirates and forming the bond that has ultimately shaped their entire lives.
His real name, however, is Caleb Lancaster. Caleb actually means “dog,” but I didn’t choose it for that reason (even though that would be a totally viable one because dogs are one of the best things to happen to this world.) I chose a name that was soft and anonymous, something that doesn’t leave a distinct initial impression. Caleb was named by a mother who left him when he was an infant. He was an unnoticed child, unnoticed youth and is even now leads a relatively unremarkable existence. It’s the complete opposite of who he really is.
The Bottom Line
Names hold stories inside them. You can use names to reveal information about your character’s family, to learn more about their origins and to connect your book to some of its inspirations and to illustrate metaphors.
If your novel was inspired by an outside source, why not turn to those very things for inspiration?
Think of your character when you’re looking for the right name. Who is he/she, and where did they come from? A black sheep could have an unexpectedly proper name, one that he or she refuses to go by, which subsequently disappoints and angers the family. An average Joe can alternatively have an off-the-wall moniker that he keeps masked behind a much milder alias.
Or maybe your characters really do get a chance to name themselves, like Four and Tris in Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy. If that’s the case, ask yourself what matters to your characters. Their nom de guerre can signify so much; what they love, what they want, even what they fear.
An old Japanese proverb says, “Tigers die and leave their skin. People die and leave their names.” Give your characters a namesake that you’re proud to leave behind in the minds and hearts of readers. Don’t try and give your character a name that they have to live up to. Give them a name that lives long after their story has ended.