A Rose By Any Other Name

Naming my characters is at once the most fun and the most frustrating part of writing. I swear I found it easier to choose a name for my kids than to get all the names right for all the characters in each story.

A name is so much more than just a label. If you get it right, it tells the reader about their background, their character, and just as importantly, the genre of your story. Take Count Vlad Dracula as an example. Say the name out loud; roll the syllables around your tongue and listen to the harsh consonants amongst the long, soft vowel sounds.

Count. Vlad. Dracula.

It really is the perfect name for the aristocratic vampire of legend. Stoker lucked out, for his Dracula was based on the historical Wallachian Vlad Dracula, but there are many other examples in literature of names that use this principle to work in the same way. Peake’s Steerpike, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, Kesey’s infamous Nurse Ratched, even Dahl’s Agatha Trunchbull. Come on – you just can’t imagine a romantic heroine named Miss Trunchbull, but as a sadistic headmistress her name fits like a glove.

Drifting away from horror, I’ve always admired JK Rowling for the sheer amount of thought she put into naming even the most insignificant characters. Take Phineas Nigellus Black, whose portrait hangs in both Dumbledore’s office and in 12 Grimmauld Place. Nigellus is rooted in the Latin word niger, meaning black, and the Hebrew translation of Phineas is “mouth of a snake”. Phineas was a Slytherin, the portrait his only remaining mouthpiece.

The right name can make or break your character. When I sat down to plot out my new steampunk novella this week, there were eight main characters I wanted to name, from a Moulin Rouge dancer to the shadowy ringmaster of a travelling fair passing through Montmartre. And so Clemence Fontaine and Ignatius Demorte were born.

Shakespeare wrote that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. As much as I love his work, I would have to disagree. Getting the right name for your characters is key.

I would love to hear your favourite names you’ve come up with for your characters! Let me know in the comments below.

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