Characterization through Names

Have you ever been stuck trying to come up with a name for a fictional character in your novel? Sometimes the perfect name comes to you easily but usually research is involved or should be.

A name for a fictional character isn’t just a name. It’s a personality, a history, and sometimes a future.

I spent a lot of time researching the names for the large cast of characters in The Witch’s Salvation. I not only needed regal-sounding names for the majority of characters who belonged to lost houses of ancient monarchies, but names that crossed social statuses, cultures, religions, and, more importantly, centuries. The majority had to be fifteenth-century East European names. The first place I went to were the family trees of the ancestral royal houses of Wallachia, Moldavia, and Hungary. After this I checked the names of the political leaders of the time, followed by lists of cultural names. Here’s the rundown and the rationale for the major characters in The Witch’s Salvation.

Anasztasia, my heroine, is a Hungarian name, meaning resurrection. The actual spelling is Anasztázia but the second “z” made the name too severe- looking and the accent was irrelevant for English speakers. The name alludes to Anastasia of the House of Romanov, the last imperial dynasty to rule Russia. It was, therefore, regal-sounding, but, more importantly, it could be shortened to “Annie”, an everyday and endearing Anglo name.  In The Witch’s Salvation, Anasztasia always tries to do the right thing. She is a kind-hearted urban princess, who is uncomfortable with her royal status and heritage. But she comes into her own, experiencing a “resurrection” on several levels. The name was perfect for her.

Matthias is the Anglicized form of the Hungarian Mátyás. Matthias is a borderline genius, wildlife advocate, and sports enthusiast, who rejects his nobility and his stuffy royal family. I named him after Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary from 1448 to 1490 and a military commander, who introduced the Renaissance to his kingdom. Matthias’s middle name is Stefan, which in Romanian means “crown.”  At the beginning of the novel, Matthias doesn’t suit the integrity and significance of his names. However, by the end of the novel, Matthias grows into their nobility.

The secondary characters in The Witch’s Salvation were given names either for their root meanings or historical significance. Anasztasia’s grandfather is Constantin, which in Romanian means steadfast. Constantin is the prince of the House of Senesti and an unmovable force of tradition. Matthias’s grandfather is Alexandru, the prince of the House of Barbat. In Romanian, his name means defender of mankind. The name “Alexandru” is as formidable-sounding and looking as the name “Constantin”. These two princes were rivals in history for the Wallachian throne, but they are mirror images of honor, pride and nobility. The rule of thumb for fictional characters is to distinguish them by using names with different initials, syllable counts, and tone. This is one instant where it worked best not to distinguish between the weight and sound of the names.

Strigoaică is a female witch in Romanian folklore. I changed the name to “Strigoaic” and applied it as a generic name to a girl who has lost her real name and yearns to reclaim it along with her humanity. Hence, the witch’s salvation and the title of the novel.

Andrei is a major character in the historical section of the novel. In Romanian, the name means “warrior” and that is exactly what he is. Friar Gavril also appears in the historical section. Gavril means “man of God”. The reference to Gabriel the Archangel is intentional. Renata is a Gypsy but I gave her a Hungarian name that means reborn. Renata has been raised away from her clan. She is also almost killed when my hero and heroine show up and save her, giving her another chance at life.

Whether a novel has a large cast of characters like The Witch’s Salvation or only a few, avoiding names with the same letter, syllable count, and tone is always a good rule to follow. How can you distinguish between characters if they are called Anne, Anton, Andrew, Allie, Alice, or Ariel? You should have a good reason to ignore the rule, which I believe I did when I named my characters Anasztasia, Andrei, Alexandru, and even Austin (yes, British, and, yes, as quirky as Austin Powers—intentional reference). The names were not only perfect for the characters, but they were solid and distinct enough in tone, meaning, or reference to allow for distinction. Also, except for Anasztasia, none of the other “A” named characters share scenes, which could have created confusion for the reader, and forced me to rethink the choice of my perfect names.

What do you think of these names for the characters in one novel? Florence Fae, Don Dobson, Bob Budsen, Marnie Murphy?  Nice alliterative initials, but I’m going to have difficulty distinguishing between them. They don’t tell me anything about their characters except that they come from an English-speaking country. The names should reflect their personalities, heritages, significance, or future. The alliteration doesn’t make me take them seriously, either (unless, of course, this is a comedy). Leave alliteration for characters that need to stand out. Are you likely to forget a character named Bilbo Baggins, Severus Snape, Sam Spade, or even a non-literary character like Betty Boop?

Unique names are great if they don’t work against the function of the character. “Schnooze expanded his chest, his muscles rippling like water, and aimed his sword at Barrbee, the two-meter high leader of the Barrbee Clan of warrior princesses.” Do these names make you believe in how big and bad Schnooze and Barrbee are? They don’t for me. They make me think of someone who likes to sleep and Barbie dolls. They also don’t bring me into the author’s special world. For science fiction or fantasy, where worlds are created, names should reflect the special nature of that world and the character’s function or role in it.

“Lucrezia Joyce Xhipeng Chekova pulled out her iPad and goggled her manicurist’s name.”  Is your character of mixed heritage? If not, then rethink the names. Names also go in and out of vogue. Lucrezia was a popular name in fifteenth century Rome, while Joyce was popular in Anglo-speaking nations in the 1920’s. Check what’s popular for the generation, culture, and country that your characters hail from.  Also, the iPad tells me this is a contemporary novel. Four names per characters are not the norm. Unless you have a solid reason, one name is more than enough even when introducing a character to the reader. The rest of the names can come when and only if necessary.

I ignored one significant rule when I assigned names to the characters in The Witch’s Salvation. Most of the names are difficult to pronounce. Reviewers have mentioned this. But historical authenticity was the priority for me. I couldn’t name my characters Anne or Matt or Alex or Cory and get the same tone and feel.

A name for a fictional character is part of his or her personality and role in the novel.  I find that once I have assigned the right name to a character, I can think and write from his or her point of view and to stay in character.  In other words, you need to know the background information of your character before you can assign a name.

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