A great character name is evocative. It tells you something about the person you’re encountering in the book. It implies things about their character before another word has even hit the page.

I’m reading Gail Carriger’s charming Etiquette & Espionage, and it made me think of this. It’s littered with names like Sophronia, Petunia and Dimity, names that evoke it’s upper crust Victorian social setting as well as specific characters. There’s a Mrs Barnaclegoose in the first scene, a name both amusing and evocative.

But my favourite is Bumbersnoot, the name of Sophronia’s mechanimal pet. It’s a name that evokes a gentle, friendly character, that helps me picture the mechanimal’s behaviour even when it’s not described, and that’s just fun to say.

Go on, say it out loud. Don’t worry about the looks you get, it’ll be worth it.

Bumbersnoot.

Wasn’t that good?

The king of this sort of naming is Charles Dickens. I haven’t read a lot of his work, but it’s littered with evocative and curious names. Just think of his most famous character, Ebenezer Scrooge. It’s a hard, angular name for a hard, angular man. It sounds nasty. It’s so brilliant that his surname has become a by-word for meanness and spite.

George R R Martin’s good at this too. It’s difficult when you’ve got a cast is huge as his, and a world that’s darker and more grounded than Carriger’s Finishing School. But just think of Ned Stark.

Ned’s a good, reliable name. It’s a no nonsense name. It’s a name that’s straightforward, that gets stuff done without allowing complications to unfold. That name evoke’s all that’s noble about the character, and all that becomes his downfall.

And Stark, a name that literally describes the lands he comes from and the way that shapes his character. A cold, hard landscape that breeds hard men and women.

So, the usual question – what are your favourite? What great names from fiction have I missed? Who does this best?

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Comments
  1. glenatron says:

    I rather like Rowlings pseudo-dickensian naming scheme. Particularly tiny hectic owl Pigwidgeon. That name makes me smile every time I think of it.

  2. Jade Risley says:

    I think one perfect name to one writer can be an imperfect one to another. It’s not just how the name describes or adds to that said character, but also how it is being perceived by the writer. I think the names you listed or somewhat interesting, but personally for meself, I probably wouldn’t use them.

    Some of my favorite character names in fiction would be: Leto Atreides, Stilgar and Irulan from Dune; Ender and Valentine from Ender’s Game; Drizzt Do’Urden from the Dark Elf; and Mara Jade, Talon Karrde and Jacen Solo from the Star Wars EU.

    • The Star Wars ones are a good example where I thought that the general choice of names helped build the atmosphere of the setting. There were a lot of dynamic, exotic names that told you action was definitely going to happen.

  3. Jon Taylor says:

    Obadiah Hakeswill… It’s a name that drips with brutishness, hate and filth. It’s perfect for the character. He was played to a tee by Pete Postlethwait, who also had a fantastic name (which predictive text wants to turn into ‘apostle thwart’, which is a brilliant phrase. A linguistic trifecta!

  4. G.B. Koening says:

    I’m a huge fan of Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol stories. With the early ones written in the 1950’s and 60’s, the protagonist needed a good 1950’s kinda name…one like Manse Everard!
    I love that name. It really gives flavor to the writing and somehow lets you time travel back to the period when Mr. Anderson wrote them.

    • I haven’t read those, but I love the idea of a name evoking the setting in which the story was written as well as the one in which it is set. It adds to the richness of the reading experience, like picking up a second hand scifi paperback with one of those sixties rocket ships on the front or an old Penguin edition.

  5. skudssister says:

    I have a huge problem with Dickens. I actually find the names a bit silly – I usually describe them as a bit too Dickensian. It isn’t Dickens’ fault – its not him, its me….
    That said I do love the names in the Gormenghast trilogy – starting with Gormenghast itself, on to Steerpike and beyond….

    • I love the Gormenghast books, and you’re right, they’re a great example of this. ‘Gormenghast’ sounds strange, ornate, gothic. ‘Steerpike’ is spiky and menacing. ‘Swelter’ sounds bloated and unpleasant. I suspect that reading that book in my teens is half the reason I love ornate names, as well as stories set in strange, rambling places and on rooftops.

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