22 February 2009 - 11:57 am

Naming: Part 2: What’s in a Name?

One of the first things I do with a new writing group is an exercise on names, and it’s a topic that I often find myself commenting on when doing reviews and feedback on pieces. It seems to be one of the most overlooked areas of characterisation and writing, especially for new writers.


Exercise: write 100 words about your own name. You can write about your first, last or given name, whichever you prefer. Write about any of the following:

  • What your name means to you
  • Where you got it from and why it was chosen for you
  • If you’ve ever changed it
  • How you feel about it
  • Family history or tradition
  • Anything else it brings to mind.


For me, names are very important. A character doesn’t begin to truly take shape in my head until I can attach the right name to it. Some writers use placeholders while they search for the right name; I prefer to find the right name as early as possible, because it helps to mould the character as I write.

But beyond what our character’s name means to us as the writer, what does it mean to our readers? In our transmission of ideas, this is an important consideration. What might a reader take from the names we give our characters? How can we put a simple moniker to best use?

Here is some of the information I have collected on the subject. Some of this might be obvious, but these things are easily missed in the fire of writing. Not all of these elements need to (or in some cases should be) used, but these are some of the tools at your disposal.


First of all, let’s look at what a character’s title can tell us, before we even get to the character’s name. This is the easiest and most obvious part.

  • It tells us if a woman is married (Mrs), or refuses to give her marital status (Ms). Hints about age, status and personality are given there.
  • It suggests the character’s level of education and profession (Dr, Professor, Father, Detective, Captain, etc).
  • For men, ‘Mr’ is generic but does suggest that he is at least an adult.
  • Archaic titles (Master, Madam, etc) suggest the time and society the character is living in, as well as relative social status.
  • Official or noble titles (Lord, Lady, Duke, Ambassador, etc) also indicate social status, familial prestige and possible personal wealth.

Full name

So what does a character’s name tell us? Try these for starters:

  • Social class/background. The names given to children vary according to class, and often according to the fashion at the time within those classes. For example, the notorious names given to the children of celebrities.
  • Age / generation.  First names go in and out of fashion, and the generation of a person can often be pinned down because of that. Some names are always popular (Matthew and David are good examples of that), but names that seem ‘archaic’ or ‘oldfashioned’ are usually just out of the limelight for the moment.
  • Family history/heritage. The family’s geographical origins can be indicated (for example, an American with an Italian surname would indicate that the character’s family emigrated to the US from Italy). This can have an effect on the background and culture of the character. Other heritage aspects can also be brought into play, assuming that the reader knows about the heritage you’re referring to.
  • Culture/race. Similar to the above point, the character’s name can indicate the culture and origin of the character and his or her family.
  • Meaning. Most names have a meaning attached. Readers are not always going to pick up on meanings (such as ‘Helen’ meaning ‘beauty’), but some are more obvious than others (such as the Apocalypse Blog’s Faith).

If you are building your own world/society, you can build more into the naming scheme if you choose. These guidelines are based on real-world rules (for simplicity and brevity!).

Given name

Wait, how is this different to their full name? The ‘given name’ is the name by which a person prefers to be called. It is not always the character’s first name – it may not be the character’s ‘official’ name at all. This is one of the more useful methods of characterising, as how a person prefers to be called says a lot about them.

Your options:

  • First name. Simple, straightforward, familiar and informal.
  • Title and surname. Formal and distancing. Often indicates a position of power and respect – using this form of a name is an act of giving respect to a person. Period pieces often use title and first name for a similar effect, though that is a more familiar form. Profession-based titles also place the character in a professional role (Dr., Father, etc) rather than a friendly or interpersonal one.
  • Surname only. Not as familiar as using a first name, not as formal as using it with a title in front. Can be used for the same effect as a nickname.
  • Nickname. Informal and familiar. Can also be used to distance themselves from the ‘real’ name.
  • Shortened version of the first name. Familiar, relaxed, and informal.
  • Codename. Completely hides the ‘true’ identity of the person. This is more purposeful than a mere nickname.
  • Middle name. Very similar to using the first name, but there should be a reason why it is used instead of the first name.

So how do I choose what name to use? Here are some considerations for you:

  • Do you want to give the character a particular role or purpose?
  • How does the character feel about his or her own name? This is one of the most important ways you can characterise through the use of names.
  • Was the character given an awkward, embarrassing or overly complicated name?
  • How casual is the character? How comfortable is the character with others being familiar with him or her?
  • The background of a character can often influence how he or she prefers to be called. Any bad experiences that might affect this? Good ones? Bullying at school?
  • Does the character have a very common first name? Was an alternative required for ease of identification? (Six Charlottes in one class, for example).
  • Has the character changed his or her name? Officially? If so, why?
  • Does the character have a name that he or she hates being called by? An embarrassing nickname? Named after a repulsive or reviled grandparent?
  • Does the character have a name that only a few people use – like a nickname only used within the family?

This choice can vary between characters and depending on relationships, so it’s not always as simple as choosing one and running with it.

Used name

Wait, what? This is the other side of the coin from the given name. On the one hand, there is the way that a character would like to be referred to. On the other hand is the name used by other characters. These do not always coincide!

The name that a character uses to refer to another person is an efficient shorthand for indicating the relationship between those characters. Formality, familiarity, intimacy and friendliness are all factors that play into this.

Be careful with this, though! Don’t overuse it, or you may end up with a character being called by a different name by every person they know. That has pitfalls of its own, not least of which is confusion. Identity and confusion are covered in Naming: Part 1.

So there you are! Now you have a plethora of tools for naming and characterising the cast of your work. Now get back to writing!

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