Say My Name: 3 Theories for Naming Characters

Into-the-Woods-characters

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Fairy tales and fables were often written about characters without specific names. Stories about a nameless old woman who lived in the woods, a country mouse who visited the city, or a young girl whose mother had died were quite common. These stories left their protagonist without a name so that the audience might insert themselves into the story. They were stories about the “everyman” or “everywoman.”

In our current culture of storytelling, we name our characters, often with great intention. Many writers go as far as to avoid character names that end in “s” because of the awkwardness that can arise when you write the possessive form of that name. Here are a few other theories about naming characters in your story.

1. LITERAL THEORY

Elijah Wood portrays Hobbit Frodo in a scene from the film "The Lord of The Rings The Fellowship of The Ring" in this undated publicity photograph. The film received four Golden Globe nominations, including Best Drama Motion Picture, in Beverly Hills, California December 20, 2001.

With Literal Theory, the character’s name literally translates to something else in another language, dialect, or form. Cinderella comes from the French name Cendrillon literally meaning “little ashes.” Sherlock is an English surname meaning “shear lock” or short hair. We can assume that Arthur Conan Doyle used the name with the intention that the character never lets things get out of hand. He keeps things under control. While Finding Nemo is arguably Marlin’s story, Nemo means “nobody” in Latin, giving us greater insight into the inner journey of these characters. Cluing us in to a reveal no one saw coming, Darth Vader is a play on dark vater, which is German for father. Harry Potter’s Albus Dumbledore translates to “white bumblebee” in Old English – something the character hints at with his penchant for humming.

Perhaps the most prolific user of Literal Theory was J.R.R. Tolkien. While his extensive use of dead European language could fill an entire volume, a few brief examples include: Samwise, which is “half wise” in Old English; Gandalf, which is “wand elf” in Old Norse; and Frodo, deriving from the Germanic element frod, which means wise.

2. SEMIOTIC THEORY

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In Semiotic Theory, the character’s name is a sign or symbol for something else. Some avoid this theory, fearing it’s a bit on the nose. However, its long history throughout literature as well as its current use makes it a theory we can’t ignore. In San Andreas, Dwayne Johnson’s character is named Ray – a ray of hope in a bleak situation. Multitudes of movies have called their female characters Rose, Joy, Violet, or Angelica to symbolize her feminine traits. In Angel Heart, Robert De Niro’s Satan is cleverly named Louis Cyphre, while Mickey Rourke plays Harry Angel. The Star Wars films often use this theory with character names like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.

In addition to Literal Theory, the Harry Potter films also draw on semiotic theory with characters such as Remus Lupin and Sirius Black. Remus and his twin brother Romulus were abandoned as babies and raised by wolves according to legends surrounding the founding of Rome. Lupin refers to someone who can take on the form of a wolf through concentration while retaining his or her human intelligence. Sirius, of course, refers to the “dog star” which is the brightest in the Canis Major (or Great Dog) constellation. The use of Semiotic Theory in television runs rampant as well. An examination of Breaking Bad’s Walter White and Heisenberg could alone easily fill another article.

3. CHAOS THEORY

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With Chaos Theory, character names seem believable, without significance, random, and perhaps common at first glance, but somehow still capture the feel or essence of the character. While originally named Indiana Smith after George Lucas’s dog, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect name for an adventurer than Indiana Jones. There’s nothing in the name that speaks to the exotic, yet somehow it just feels right. The same might be said of Jack Reacher, Hannibal Lecter, and Sarah Conner.

In the upcoming Jurassic World, we see characters like Owen Grady, Claire Dearing, and Vic Hoskins (portrayed by Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Vincent D’Onofrio, respectively). Again, the names don’t seem to have any symbolism or literalism. They just feel right. They feel like they capture the character. The same can be said of Cameron Crowe’s characters in Aloha with names such as Brian Gilcrest, Woody Woodside, and Carson Welch, played by Bradley Cooper, John Krasinski, and Bill Murray.

When using Chaos Theory to name your characters, you have to go with your gut. Sit with the name. See how it feels when you say it aloud. You’ll know when you’ve perfectly captured the character you’ve been building in your head.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

One thought on “Say My Name: 3 Theories for Naming Characters

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  1. I hate to pick a fight, but I’m trying to kill off the Vader/father myth. Vader did not become Luke’s father until script revisions in 1979, and was in fact named after George Lucas’ classmate Gary Vader. Darth Vader was purely a chaos theory name that happened to acquire meaning through complete coincidence.

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