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What's In a Name? Naming Main Characters in Your Novel

Updated: Jun 21

How do you choose your characters’ names? It’s a great question, but if you ask 11 authors, you may get 11 answers. It’s a personal choice and one that is important to consider while or even before you begin writing.

My characters’ names come from many places. Largely, it depends on that character’s role. For example, I may name a side character after a friend of mine. In “The Life After,” the main character has a distant cousin who creates the graphic for the hated sweatshirt she must wear throughout the book. I named this character Danalynn after my dear friend, Danalynn, who is extremely gifted at screenprinting and design. For me, it’s fun to throw some of my friends’ names into the mix for funsies.

My main characters have very different purposes behind their names. Each of my characters have full backstories, whether or not they are shared with the reader. The main character in “The Life After” is named Penelope Ruth Porter. The genesis of her name comes from two different angles. Why did I name her Penelope Ruth Porter and why did her parents choose that name for her? We’ll start with me. 

Penelope was the wife of Odysseus in “The Odyssey.” As readers of classic literature know, that epic poem tells the story of Odysseus going on a long journey to return home to his faithful wife. In my story, it is Penelope who must take the journey. Like Odysseus, she encounters many obstacles on her path. No, “The Life After” isn’t a retelling of “The Odyssey,” but as many experts will tell you, “The Odyssey” is at least a partial inspiration for all stories of this nature, whether purposeful or not.

Ruth was my grandmother’s name. It also means “friendship,” which is vital to this story as friendship helps her find strength within herself to carry on. Her last name, Porter, comes from the French for “doorkeeper.” This name was chosen because doors play an important role in the telling of the story and Nell finding those doors is integral to her success. The nickname, Nell, means “shining light,” which is apt for it is the light that she is seeking along the way. Lastly, the presence of many nicknames and being mis-named is purposeful. It is meant to show that we are constantly changing. None of us are the same person from one moment to the next.

Now you understand why I gave Nell her name, but what purpose did her parents have? It is all about family. Nell’s mother, Margot, has a backstory that is only lightly touched on in this book. However, I feel it is necessary to have a full backstory for every character in order to convey their personalities as clearly as possible, no matter how brief their appearance may be. In Margot’s case, she was abandoned as a baby. Because Margot had a difficult upbringing, family was very important to her. She married her husband, Bill, and wanted to name her children after his family. Penelope Ruth was her husband’s aunt’s name, who was the woman who raised him after his own mother passed away. 

How much of that is covered in the actual novel? Some, but not all. To me, it’s less important that I share the backstory as long as I have it. My characters have motivation even when it’s not apparent to the reader. For Margot and Bill, their motivation for naming their daughter was as simple as honoring family. 

When you name your characters, you must have your own reason. Perhaps it's simply a name you have always loved or one you feel the readers can relate to. Maybe there is a deeper meaning you prefer to keep to yourself. What is most important is that you be true to yourself. Don't choose a name based on something I or someone else tells you is important. You are the creative mind; your character is yours to create and name.

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