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Characterization and Nomenclature:


What's in a name?


As an author, one of the most important tasks in writing a story is building a character. Every small trait that a writer leaves, builds, and hints at, draws a reader into the story and gives them an image of each character, be it protagonist, antagonist, or miscellaneous extra. However, many writers overlook one of the strongest traits that a character can have: a name. Nomenclature can be one of the most powerful assets that a writer has in their endless battle to build a lifelike character.

The uses of a name

The craft of literature is always at some level a decision-making process. While names need not always be used, there should always be a conscious decision that a writer makes about a name. When making a conscious decision, one must be able to list the benefits that the choice yields: if one names a character "Charles," they should also to some extent be able to explain why the character is named Charles. The same is true of the decision to have a name at all.

  • Names and Heritage


Names draw subconscious images for readers. Whether a reader thinks about it or not, the name draws a rough outline of heritage, culture, and upbringing. Let's look at a few examples:

"Robert Jordan." (from the protagonist in "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (1).)

This name is a western name. From the etymology of "Robert," (from the Northern French pronunciation of the German name, "Hrodberht" (2) ) it is immediately deducible that the man has heritage in western Europe, and that his culture has had German and French influences, through cultural diffusion.

From the surname, "Jordan," (from the Hebrew name for the river, Jordan. (3)) we can conclude that his culture is heavily influenced by Abrahamic religions.

With the full name, "Robert Jordan," we can combine all of these elements to form a solid idea of his national origin. With the heavy western European influence and Abrahamic religion influence, we can conclude that his name comes from France or England.

Add in minute details about the time-setting and language (around World War 2 and he is a fluent English speaker), it is all but certain that he hails from what is now the United Kingdom, or from the United States or Canada.

Two words of nomenclature have placed a young man's heritage, culture, probable religion, and hint at his upbringing.

Here are some more examples of names that hint (or scream) at heritage or culture:

"Fernando Alejandro Javier Cortez"

"Gustav Bauer"

"Hideki Nagano"

  • Names and Traits


Often times, a name will hint at a character's traits, and those traits will often be strong drivers in the plot of the story itself. For instance:

"Scout Finch" (from the protagonist of "To Kill a Mockingbird" (4).)

This name creates a basic set of traits that drive the character. "Scout," someone who explores unexplored territory, is her first name (5). It yields an image of someone who is inquisitive, an explorer by nature, and willing to proverbially peer under rocks that have never been moved. This proves true throughout the plot, where her lawyer father, Atticus, defends an African-American at a trial in times where prejudice and segregation reigns in the United States.

Surnames serve to characterize a family the same way that a first name characterizes the individual. Scout's last name, "Finch," is a small songbird (6). The comparison of her family as a group of good-natured songbirds is a main force throughout the novel.  The family of finches proves over and again to mean no harm to anyone, a trait which is challenged over and over by the pervasive racism throughout the story.

  • Names and Etymology


As in the overt traits that characterized Scout Finch and her family, names will often carry a trait, object, or job that they are derived from. These can also be driving traits in characterization, but are hidden from the reader's plain sight. Here are a couple examples of etymology of names:

"Aaron."
means "mountain." (7)

"Eve." means "life." (8)


  • Names and Allusion


Another way to endow a character with traits through their name is through the allusion to their role in a famous story or religion. Often, a character will take on the role that the alluded-to person did. Some examples of names with heavy allusion:

"Hercules" (and derivatives.)

"Gabriel"

"Joan"

"Mary"

  • Names and Phonetics


Another trait that a name endows a character with, is some level of strength and power. The accents of syllables within a name create phonetic stress, that carries to the reader on a subconscious level. Monosyllabic words with longer vowel sounds tend to be very feminine, and carry with them the delicate nature of an archetypal female, and the perception of emotionality. Monosyllabic words with shorter, harder consonant sounds tend to the masculine side of the spectrum, and insinuate physical or mental strength, and the emotional structure of an archetypal male.

Male/Masculine: "Jack"  
Male/Feminine: "Sam"

Female/Feminine: "Faith"
Female/Masculine: "Deb"

Multi-syllabic words have multiple stressed or unstressed syllables,  and afford a greater range of stresses.

Male/Masculine/Masculine: "Jacob"
Male/Masculine/Feminine: "Sammy"
Male/Feminine/Masculine: "Alfons"
Male/Feminine/Feminine: "Adam"

(Note that there is still some masculinity to the last example. This is a characteristic of male names, and ultimately a root of how the masculinity/femininity of names came about.)

Female/Masculine/Masculine: "Betty"
Female/Masculine/Feminine: "Nancy"
Female/Feminine/Masculine: "Maegan"
Female/Feminine/Feminine: "Laura"

(Note that while not always purely stressed or unstressed syllables, they carry harder or softer sounds, and that as with male/feminine/feminine, names, female/masculine/masculine names are uncommon, and psychologically avoided by parents when naming a child of the corresponding sex.)

  • Commonness of Names


The familiarity of the audience with the names and surnames of a character can create an effect upon their view of the character. For example:

Familiar: "Jake Smith" (Smith is one of the most common surnames in the "English" speaking world, and "Jake" is a common first name.)

Unfamilliar: "Rhablergresh Subblepishkle" (It should be very unfamiliar, as I made it up.)


  • Creating a Name


Armed with a basic knowledge of all the aforementioned topics, we can begin to form and create our own nomenclature for original characters, and even inanimate objects. The only limit to what can have an original name is what can be named. A few examples:

Trait/Phonetic:
A quirky, masculine fellow: "Cranston Jackoby" (with troves of research-able possibilities.)

Phonetic:
An elegant, treacherous disease: "The Ellistra Virus."

Allusion/Phonetic/Heritage:
A failing reanimation researcher with a penchant for hi-jinks: "Lazarus "Lazlo" McGee"


Etymology/Trait:
A strong man who belongs to a strong family (physically or in character.) "Ethan Strong." ("Ethan" means "strong." (9))

Trait/Phonetic:
A corporation of creative inventors that produces (or produced, or wanted to characterize their products as:) top of the line technology: "The Daedalus Corporation."

  • To name, or not to name?


A common technique in literature is to remove a character's name so that a reader may put themselves in the positions of the character, and feel like part of the scene. The lack of a name altogether can be as powerful a force as a well-chosen name: they both reveal something about the character.

When creating a nameless character, the character is usually very generic in their physical description, and often times has no description at all. Lack of a name is one aspect of the greater idea of creating a faceless character, or a character that leaves their descriptions up to the reader. Faceless characters hope to force the reader to become that character.

Names are Important

Often, naming a character can be the hardest choice in the decision making process that is literature. Even more often, names are chosen without high regard for meaning, reason, and justification. Depending upon perspective, a name might be repeated over and over. This makes the construction of a name all the more important, because the reader encounters it more than any single other description of a character. A name might need to be repeated every few paragraphs to every few sentences.

One might not only have a name echo traits of a character, but play off the expectation that the trait creates. A harsh, masculine exterior can often fall away to reveal a vulnerable interior. Names can characterize families, and families create conflict, both internal and external. A woman named "Faith" need not be a woman of religion, or need to have any belief at all. However, every time the name is repeated, that association of confidence and trust returns to a reader's conscious. As with any artistic guideline, once the concepts are fully understood, they can be used or broken to create a desired effect. However, as with any technique, the user must ultimately be able to list the benefits of the act.

Names are a powerful force, and one that should be treated with as much care as any other detail about a character.
Works Cited:

1.For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway

2. [link]

3. [link]

4. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

5. [link]

6. [link]

7. [link]

8. "[link]"

9. [link]
_________________________________

I could not find any proper resources dealing with this subject, on or off of DA.

So, I decided to write about the subject for a while.

:new: holy schnikes a DD! :D
Thanks becca and angelstained!

and thanks for all of the lovely comments, guys. :)
Add a Comment:
 

Daily Deviation

Given 2011-08-21
Characterization and Names by =K47454k1 Suggester Writes: Names are a very often overlooked part of writing a story. With this clearly informative and well-worded article, names would be treated with much more deserved consideration. ( Suggested by angelStained and Featured by BeccaJS )
:iconcomicon-nerd:
comicon-nerd Featured By Owner Feb 9, 2014  Student General Artist
Man, I never thought that something as simple as a name could be so important to storytelling :)
Reply
:iconfablestorm:
Fablestorm Featured By Owner Jan 1, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
This is beyond fabulous.

I often feel like people either don't put enough thought into a character's name or over think it to the point where it makes their characters seems like caricatures.

I think with everything you've covered (especially phonetics, which are SO often overlooked) it'll be a lot easier to strike a decent balance between smart/subtle and completely in-your-face.
Reply
:iconmaryrenialt:
maryrenialt Featured By Owner Oct 28, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
Nice work. Thank you so much.
One question yet... May I translate your work to spanish? Many spanish readers and writers will be happy :D
Reply
:iconreygarfaust:
ReygarFaust Featured By Owner Aug 24, 2011  Professional Photographer
Beautiful work! I love your works!
Reply
:iconkin-maru:
Kin-Maru Featured By Owner Aug 22, 2011
I love this! Are you a good author or a good psychologist? x3
Reply
:icondemongirlhero:
DemonGirlHero Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
It is very informative and will help in the future.
Reply
:iconskatergreene:
skatergreene Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Student Traditional Artist
love it! names are definitely the most overlooked part of character creation, and more attention needs to be paid to it! it's a very necessary step and feature. :D thanks for making this.
Reply
:iconloverofwars:
LOVEROFWARS Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011
great help because right now I'm trying to come up with a new name for one of my characters.
Reply
:iconsylveradrake:
SylveraDrake Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
Awesome. As a writer, this was a great read - I always have trouble with names, mostly because I love to create unique ones, as to make my characters themselves unique :)
Reply
:iconoutsidersfan33:
outsidersfan33 Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Hobbyist Photographer
This is awesome; I'm glad you brought this subject up and posted it on DA. All writers should be aware of the power a name can give a character. :+fav:
Reply
:iconshadowrunner2323:
shadowrunner2323 Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
this will be very helpful in some of my writings. thank you.
Reply
:iconrelic-angel:
Relic-Angel Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
What helpful advice. :love:
Reply
:iconaquamoonlight:
AquaMoonlight Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Exactly what i'm searching for ! :D Thank you.
Reply
:iconzoracatone:
ZoraCatone Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Student General Artist
A good help for ANY aspiring author! Well done!
Reply
:iconbirdswii:
birdswii Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011
One might also include, something I've come across many times in ...at least living in the United States, given the mix up of peoples, a lot of people name their children things that have nothing to do with their own culture or heritage. I had a friend who had very very german heritage, and her own name reflected it, but she gave her kid a hawaiian name. Regardless of having never been to the area, or the father not being Hawaiian.
But if I were writing a novel I'd make sure to explain motives such as those, even if just in passing as to seem more realistic.
Reply
:iconalicenpai:
alicenpai Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Wow, I never noticed all this before when reading or choosing names, but now that I've read your piece, I can definitely say that I'm now enlightened. c:
Reply
:iconkiramaru7:
kiramaru7 Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011
This is a really handy guide for writers! Thank you for writing it! I believe that names should fit the character somehow,whether it's an allusion to their nationality, or an indication of what they're like and you've very nicely put into words how I felt about it!
Reply
:iconfreespiritedhizoku:
FreeSpiritedHizoku Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
This essay is definitely a very useful resource for we writers on dA. I like how direct it is on each individual use for the nomenclature of a character.

I definitely learned a few things from this that I wouldn't have thought of before reading.
Reply
:iconracemaster7:
racemaster7 Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Student General Artist
I've used this very reasoning when naming some of my own characters with the meaning of their names giving great insight into their personalities.
Reply
:iconridderres:
Ridderres Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
A well-written explaination. Liked it a lot. I did know some of it, but I like that you explained the difference between male and female sounds. I've been trying to figure that out in Dutch (my own language), and mostly tought the difference would be an -e or -a at the end of a female name. Your explaination is way better and might even be appropriate in Dutch, but I'll probably look into that later. Anyway, thanks for this handy guide.
Reply
:iconlady-echo:
Lady-Echo Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
This is very interesting. C: I've always loved etymology and have used it to better match a name to a character, but I haven't looked this deeply into names before. I'll keep this in mind next time I need a name. ^^
And… "Strong Strong". Lol :,D
Reply
:iconqueenkitty-chan:
QueenKitty-chan Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
This is a very nice piece! ^__^ I love it! When it comes to naming my characters I tend to take it very seriously and I hate to just stick a name on them when it doesn't suit them at all. They often end up spending weeks, months or years nameless because I couldn't decide because names are special. Again a very nice piece and congrats on the DD.
Reply
:iconrobonightmare:
Robonightmare Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Student Writer
So very true! I always think carefully about how to name a character, even if it's something as generic as 'Tim Smith' for a minor character, or maybe something as blatant as 'Loki' or 'Sparrow' for a larger protagonist. A very informative, well written, and thoughtful essay.
Reply
:icontolko-smotrju:
tolko-smotrju Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011
Thank you for the tutorial! You've said very well what I've often thought but never expressed.

Russian surnames can be very descriptive. I particularly like "Dobronravov" for a character with a hint of self-righteousness. Thanks for the inspiration!
Reply
:iconniravancopoulos:
NiraVancopoulos Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
This is very useful. I always that look for a name is in base of the fonetic, if I feel that fit (fonetically speaking of course) with the character I have in mind and such then is the one that I choose, and of course in base of the place he/she is from is the way I make my research. I guess that I should think a bit more in the ethimology of the names, but when one have to search for more than 50 characters' names it turns a bit tired x.x. Anyway, this has made me think about it and I thank you for that. Congrats for the DD =)
Reply
:iconhastymage:
HastyMage Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
Ah, I'm glad I found this! I struggle with naming my characters nowadays. This will prove very useful. Great job! :)
Reply
:iconiskaviisheart:
iskaviisheart Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
Very useful information, I have always believe that names are central to character creation, and it is something that I have a hard time with. Having it broken down like this make a perfect quick-reference guide! Thank you very much for sharing!
Reply
:iconmystic-cheetah:
Mystic-Cheetah Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011
Very nice.

For an example of recognizable name types in one universe/series of literature, Erin Hunter's Warriors might be a good place to start (though I hate it, I know it when I see it thanks to the sound and type of names).
Reply
:iconeuxiom:
Euxiom Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011
Interesting article. :nod: And wow, I read To Kill A Mocking Bird last year, I never thought of her name that way. XD Man, now you've got me really thinking about my characters names haha
Reply
:icontarantulaldamn:
TarantulaLdAmn Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
:heart:
Reply
:iconzelinxia:
Zelinxia Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011
Great and helpful article. I like the specific literary examples and reading about masculine and feminine phonetics was something new I learned regarding naming. I shall use this for future references. :)
Reply
:iconcaptain-varro:
Captain-Varro Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Superb! :+fav: This covers an often overlooked factor rather well, top quality guide! :D
Reply
:iconthe-mad-hatress:
the-Mad-Hatress Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Student General Artist
This is incredibly helpful. Thank you.
Reply
:iconaxlaru:
axlaru Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Student Writer
I really appreciate this because I have a lot of trouble coming up with names for my characters and this will get me to think about it a little more.
Reply
:iconbluesolitaire:
BlueSolitaire Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Hobbyist Photographer
This is cool and useful. I have MANY OC's (original characters) that are only in stories I've written throughout the years. The names just come to me. I'm learning what the names "mean" to the characters (who they are, their pronunciations, etc.) The revelations are interesting.
Congrats on the DD :D
Reply
:iconnanoscorn:
Nanoscorn Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Student Traditional Artist
Thanks, I fell more prepared and understand the usage of names for characters argued it be for art or school project's.
Reply
:icontheaddster:
TheAddster Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Thank you so much for this. As a young writer, it's always hard to find something here that could help with my writing, and characterization and naming is one of the harder things I face.
Thanks again for sharing, this will be put to good use with me! :iconthankyouplz:
Reply
:iconmistingwolf:
MistingWolf Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
A very nice piece. I never gave too much thought into my main character's name, Iris Kent, but it seems she fits her name rather well; her eyes have a somewhat metallic sheen to them, and she has wings that are white but the ends fade into orange, so she has different colorations. Her last name, though, I must now debate because of her background. Kent is very much an Earth name, though with my plot I suppose it could have been carried over....
Reply
:iconeuxiom:
Euxiom Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011
If I might add, the parts of her name just flow nicely together, I think. :)
Reply
:iconmistingwolf:
MistingWolf Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
Thank you very much! :D
Reply
:iconeuxiom:
Euxiom Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011
:D Welcome
Reply
:iconsister-to-the-queen:
Sister-to-the-Queen Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
I've always felt that careful selection of character names is important when writing, but I didn't realise the extent to which it could be important, and how much consideration it should receive.

Thank you for this. It'll prove most useful to me in future.
Reply
:iconmoonlithighway:
moonlithighway Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011   Writer
WOW.
This is GREAT! I'm definitely going to be able to use it in the future!
Reply
:iconcheshirelies:
CheshireLies Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011
I love this. This is one of the few articles on deviantart I've found informative and useful. You did a lovely job. Congratulations on your DD, and good luck to you in the future.
Reply
:iconkajm:
Kajm Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
Usable, and Fave!
Reply
:icontlhakujunkan:
tlhakujunkan Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
This is a really helpful resource. Thank you for taking the time to lay out examples and types of names, and congratulations on the DD. :)
Reply
:iconghostgirl-shanika:
Ghostgirl-Shanika Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
This is really great and I agree with everything that you said in this article, this will be very helpful to remember when I continue to write/create stories. Thank you for writing this! And congrats on the DD! :)
Reply
:iconlit-twitter:
Lit-Twitter Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011
Chirp, congrats on the DD, it's been twittered. [link] :)
Reply
:iconk47454k1:
K47454k1 Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Professional Writer
thanks, birdie! :P
Reply
:iconlamonaca:
LaMonaca Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2011  Professional Writer
I'd also suggest looking at how Charles Dickens used names if you want further sources. I know there are a ton of academic articles written about it. He was one of the naming masters! Congrats on your DD. :)
Reply
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