Thursday, August 28, 2008

Behind The Name

What’s in a name? everything. Don’t believe me? Just ask the boy named Sue. When I’m coming up with character names for my stories, I pick them with great care. Sometimes, I choose the name, because of the meaning (in most cases, long-forgotten), other times I choose the name to give a shout out to various family members whose names happened to coincide nicely for a given character.

Let’s examine the name Nina as a prime example of multiple meanings. She was one of the villains from my book The Dance. It is a common enough name and has several modern translations ranging from Mother (Swahili) to little girl (Latin based lingues) to pretty eyes (Hindi). There are numerous variations (seemingly one for every language), but all in there own way are applicable to the character. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that Nina was the Babylonian Goddess of Life and Death. Once worshiped far and wide and held in such reverence that a King of Sumer even took her name for himself. In the book, this is the definition that fits her best, but the reader wouldn’t realize that until well over half-way through the story.

I’ve been known to spend days (if not weeks) deliberating on the names of my protagonists and antagonists. Having said that, it’s next to impossible to get a full picture of the characters until I see them in action, so I use a generic name as I write the story and once I have a better feel for who the character is, I’ll go back and do the research before I officially dub them.

Of course this begs the question: Would anyone know the difference? I doubt it. I can’t think of a single instance where I finished a book and went back to look up the meanings of the characters names to see if there were any underlying messages hidden within them.
Perhaps I should revisit a few of my favorite books and do just that.


  1. I have read many books that have given a great significance to the names. Specially books of my own language. I have a friend from Florida who is writing a sci- fi novel & whose manuscript I got to read. He has a scientist from India in the book, whom he called Kavi ( thinking it meant intelligent) I told hi it meant A Poet. He was promptly ready to change the name, but I asked him whether he thought that a Kavi was 'not intelligent'. So he has struck to giving him that name.:)

    I will tell you something interesting about Hindi names. Every mythical character, or god or goddess has several names & each name means something different. These names are given to them in accordance to the various forms & the duties -for which they appeared & mean like wise. Even people are given these names. For example Kali & Durga are the names of the same goddess , but Kali is a revengeful Durga, while Durga is the Justice giver who is a kinder version of Kali.

    Chanda ( snows real name) means moon. It has several names like Chandra, Som, Shashi, Vidhu, Mayank, Shashank, Rakesh, Sudhakar. These names have different connotations & are names given to people!

    Nina Naina are all related to eyes. Mirgnayni means exotic eyes ( doe eyed)

  2. Wow, James! You're put a lot more thought into your names than I do. Now I'll have to read your stuff more carefully looking for the hidden meanings in the names!

    Excellent post!

  3. Sounds like you share the same philosophy as Mia (the friend in my blog Tues) who does it because SHE knows the difference.

    I always think that the characters kind of pick their own names. One day you just know who they are and I don't think any more of it.

    Great blog, James.

  4. I'm impressed. I'm beginning to think I take the lazy way out. If it sounds good, I use it.This is a very interesting

  5. Although on occasion I have named a character because of it's meaning, I don't recall ever looking up someone else's character's name for the meaning. I've only looked up meanings for myself, my family, and my characters.

    I'm more like to name a villain for someone I don't like or who's made me very very mad than because a baby name book says the name is evil or wicked.

  6. Per above, you'll see at least one of my villains is "Dennis". Dennis was very very very evil. I just looked it up and it doesn't sound evil. It says "It is of Greek and English origin, and its meaning is "follower of Dionysius"" beloved cat is "Dionysius" although we call him "Dion" for short. If I had known his name had anything to do with "Dennis" I would NOT have given my baby that name.


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