The Magic of Names: Finding Names that Capture Your Characters

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Writing

Today I thought I’d give you all a peek into one of my works-in-progress and how I’ve named a couple of key characters.  This project is a middle grade fantasy, and it involves magic.  The story revolves around a group of sisters who are very close.  It’s sort of like Little Women, only set in modern day and with magic.

When I began writing the book, I wanted the names to reflect both the personality quirks of the characters as well as their magical powers.  There area few ways to do this.  You can either start with the name and create a character or start with the character and develop a name accordingly.  Or you can choose a name to make your character stand apart from the others in your story

Names That Define Characters

Daphne, the oldest sister started out as having shape-shifting powers, but as wrote draft upon draft, I realized that the name didn’t seem to fit with her magic.  I knew that the name came from the Greek myth in which Apollo chased the nymph Daphne, trying to seduce her.  Daphne prayed to Artemis and the goddess turned her into a tree, thus saving her from Apollo’s desires.  Yes, there was that shape-shifting element in the original myth, but it was more the plant connection that resonated with me.

Suddenly I realized that my Daphne’s powers had nothing to do with shape-shifting.  Instead, it was all about the plants… a green thumb gone haywire.  Once I made this discovery, Daphne’s character came together.  In this situation, the character’s name helped me figure out who that character really was.

Thematic or Ironic Names

The youngest members of the protagonist’s family are twins: Miranda and Gwenifer.  The twins share a magical power with Miranda having the ability to turn people or objects invisible and Gwenifer being able to make invisible things visible again.  The twins represent two sides of the same magical power and I wanted their names to reflect that.

At first I named them both after flowers, Lily (Miranda) and Violet (Gwenifer), because lilies (particularly calla lilies) can appear flashy and extravagant while violets strike me as a humble, simple flower.  These characteristics seemed to reflect the personalities of the characters, with Lily/Miranda being a spunky girl and Violet/Gwenifer being much more quiet and shy.

Then one of my critique group members reminded me that in the Pixar movie The Incredibles, the daughter who turns invisible is named Violet.  I didn’t want to associate my story with that movie (even though I happen to love the film) and I wasn’t wedded to the names anyway, so it was back to the drawing board.

This time, I decided to start with the meanings of the names.  I wanted the twins to have names that had some irony relating to their magic.  Miranda literally translates from the Latin as “she who should be looked upon,” which seemed appropriately ironic for a character who turns herself and other things invisible.  Gwenifer was more of a challenge, but I finally settled on this name because it means “white ghost” or “phantom” which is ironic since her power is to make invisible objects visible and solid again.

Names to Provide Contrast

Finally, for the protagonist Samantha I wanted to have a name that could be shortened to a gender-neutral nickname (not unlike Jo March from Little Women) and I also wanted to give a nod to my favorite retro TV show that has magic, Bewitched.  In addition, I wanted her no-frills, one-syllable nickname to contrast with her sisters’ names, which were elaborate to the point of almost being ridiculous.  Sam–the brains behind all the magical shenanigans and in some ways the leader of the group–needed to stand apart.  In this case that meant having the most “normal” name of the bunch.

Take-Home Message:

Names can carry a lot of meaning and add depth to a story.  When you’re naming your characters, think about who that character is and how that name can either reflect or contrast with that character’s personality.

Do you have a character-naming saga?  If so, share with us in the comments!

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