characters / Fiction / words / Writing

Naming Characters: Charactonym

This week’s word is a fun one and corresponds with the new Character Series on writelarawrite, which “aired” on Friday and will continue for as many weeks as we deem appropriate.

Charactonym

a name of a fictional character that suggests a distinctive trait ofthat character. Examples of charactonyms include Mistress Quickly and Sir Toby Belch.

Encyclopedia Britannica

Snow White is perhaps the most well-known (and obvious) charactonym, but in the fictional world, there are plenty. Take, for example, the characters in the Harry Potter series.

Harry Potter isn’t a Charactonym. If it were, the boy wizard would look like this:

But there are others. Draco Malfoy, for instance. “Draco” means dragon. The prefix “mal-” means evil or bad. Like “malicious.” He’s a mean, fiery beast. Funny, I don’t think he particularly lived up to his name…

But Sirius Black and Remus Lupin are the epitomes of charactonyms.

Sirius is the name of the dog constellation. Remus is the name of one of the twin founders of Rome, said to be raised by a wolf. The Latin name for wolf is Canis lupus.  So there you have it: Black Dog and Wolf Wolf.

Fictional characters often have unusual names. Han Solo, Holden Caulfield, Atticus Finch, Katniss Everdeen, Hermione Granger, Maximus, Door. Sometimes writers can get a bit carried away, especially in the science fiction and fantasy genres. Or the people who name Bond girls.

That’s why the protagonist of my first published short story was named “Helen James.” She’s not very eccentric, and she’s not very attractive. She’s very normal, so I gave her a normal name.

Consider what your character names mean and how they sound when spoken aloud. If you completely make them up from scratch, for the sake of your readers, make them pronounceable.

This goes for place names, too.

You can be witty without being obnoxious. A poet named “Justice” in a movie called Poetic Justice?  That makes even me groan. A cannibal named Hannibal? Remember, less is more.

Three last examples of doing this right—characterizing subtly:

Albus Dumbledore

“Albus” means “white” in Latin, “Dumbledore” is the Old English word for “bumblebee.” Dumbledore isn’t literally a white bumblebee, but the pairing of a Latin and Old English name work for him, the color white has connotations of wisdom and goodness, and bumblebees are perhaps one of the most unusual and out of place insects in all of bugdom. Also, Rowling mentioned she pictured Dumbledore often humming to himself.

Reubus Hagrid

From Jo Rowling herself:

“Hagrid is also another old English word meaning if you were Hagrid, it’s a dialect word meaning you’d had a bad night. Hagrid’s a big drinker. He has a lot of bad nights.”

The Connection (WBUR Radio), 12 October, 1999

Minerva McGonagall

“Minerva” is the Roman goddess of wisdom. McGonagall comes from the last name of the worst poet in British History, William McGonagall. The name suggests that Professor McGonagall is brilliant, but that her silly relations might be humbling to her. This pairing shows a witty irony that isn’t obvious to anyone but the writer and those to whom she declares her inspiration.

What do you think are the best and worst examples of charactonyms?

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