The hidden code of character names

I’ve been thinking a lot about names recently, as anyone who read my recent post about the tribulations of trying to name this blog will know. It reminded me of an online conversation I participated in some months ago, about examples of books in which character names provided powerful subliminal messages about the world and events of the story, and indeed about the characters themselves.

I was in the midst of writing my first novel at the time, and in the earlier planning stages had been struck by how much easier it was to write my core characters once I’d figured out what their names were. I seemed, suddenly, to know them better and to have a more profound understanding of their significance to the story and each other. Their names have meaning; they are part of the DNA, the hidden code that underpins the structure and themes of the story.

Going through this process myself made me think about other books I’ve loved wherein names have provided a subtle, subconscious signal about who and what the characters are. Two of my favourite examples, which I contributed to that online conversation I mentioned, are The Lord of the Rings and The Silence of the Lambs.

As I read and reread The Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth time, I was struck by how Tolkien constructed names that ‘fit’ each of the races in his story, managing somehow to encapsulate the entire cultural identity of a character in their name. They are internally consistent in terms of the syntax and structure of language for that people, and are instantly evocative. The Hobbits are small, straightforward, simple country folk given to hearty jokes and earthy pursuits, and their names reflect that – Bilbo, Frodo, Merry, Pippin, Sam. The Elves, with their grandeur, magic and ancient heritage tend to have long, lyrical names – Elrond, Galadriel, Legolas, Arwen Undomiel. The Men (humans) are somewhere in between, and their names tend to reflect their degree of nobility, which in the mythology of the book is indicated by how “close” they are to elf-culture; so Aragorn, noblest of all, could be an elf-name, while Boromir, Faramir and Denethor are almost elf-like but starting to have harder consonants. The names of the people of Rohan – Eomer, Eowyn and Theoden being the most famous – repeat the ‘eo’ syllable and so have that sense of family identity, helping to reinforce that while also ‘noble’ humans, they are something of an offshoot. The pattern holds true for the other subgroups of Men, the Dwarves, the Orcs and so on.

The Silence of the Lambs is a bit more obvious, but no less effective for that. I’ve always thought that the names of the two main characters tell you everything you need to know about who they are and what they mean to the story. ‘Hannibal Lecter’ combines a legendary king who was almost superhuman in his ambition, daring and appetite for violence with a surname that sounds like ‘lectern’ or ‘lecture’ – intellectual, dry, a bit pedantic. ‘Clarice Starling’ evokes clarity, innocence, and a vision of something wild and yet vulnerable. It combines a sense of integrity with a sense of striving – taking to the air, reaching for the stars – just like the character.

How about you? Has anyone out there struggled to find just the right name for a character, something that would quietly capture their essence without being too obviously symbolic? Do you have any really good (or bad) examples to share from published books? I’d love to hear from you.


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  • I love stories.
    My new novel, Sacred, is all about them. Publication info will be posted as soon as I have it.

    In the meantime check out Gemsigns, Binary and Regeneration, available wherever good books are sold.

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