Black Defiance and the Hedgehog, Or How to Develop Character Names
One of my favorite character names is from Ivanhoe. He’s a background character named Malvoisin, and since I was taking French classes, I liked the name because it translates to “bad neighbor.”
So what makes a decent name? Naturally, it’s subjective, but I’ve always been partial to names that show some imagination, and that give us some feeling about the characters they represent. The sound of the name can evoke an image or emotion about a person, and the meaning of a name can give insights into a character. If you’re not sure where to begin, before you name your main character David C. Justice (if for no other reason than this is an actual person, a former baseball all-star and the ex-spouse of Halle Berry), do some research into what goes into a name, starting with your own family tree.
Let’s take my name. After growing up in Boston, where every family but mine seemed to have a family crest, I had to go to Ireland a few years ago to find out that the Dolan family has a coat of arms too. I even bought a history of the name, which was clearly written to fluff up the story for suckers like me. My family crest is shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. The Dolan family coat of arms.
Here’s the story behind my name. The name Dolan comes from the Irish Gaelic “Dubhshlain,” which means “black defiance.” The crescent moons in the crest come from the Crusades, so my ancestors at some point fought Holy Wars. It’s possible that my ancestor might have been the original Black Knight, which I choose to imagine more like this and less like this.
Apparently, I’m descended from a King of Leinster (the county where Dublin is located) named Eochaidh (how you pronounce this is anyone’s guess). He was one of the “Seven Septs of Leix,” which sounds like something I just made up, but is one of the seven clans that came in with the Vikings. In the same way Genghis Khan is the father of a good chunk of China, these seven clans were the direct ancestors of a lot of Irish families, including mine.
When I came home, I was giddy with pride. I couldn't wait to tell my Mom. On the phone, I told her, "Did you know the Dolan family has a coat of arms?"
"What's on it?"
She said this the same way Justin Bieber might have said the same thing if you told him, "They just found a DVD of your vacation footage." So I was a little worried, but I explained exactly what I've just described.
"You know, the Rizzo family has a coat of arms," she said.
My head went through the ceiling. "Why didn't you tell us?"
"I didn't want to break it to you."
"There's a tiny hedgehog on it."
I looked it up later. My mother’s lineage, the Rizzo family, is represented by the coat of arms in Figure 2.
Figure 2. The Rizzo family coat of arms.
Absolutely pathetic. But I’m sharing my own family shame for a reason. Names mean something, and researching the meaning of names can help develop your characters. Especially if you’re stuck trying to find the right one, it might help to read up on the origins behind the words, to see how the etymology and history behind the name might define the person you’re creating.
Still stuck? For examples of good character names, read any book by Charles Dickens. For examples of bad character names, watch any Expendables film.
Sample Character Names
Charles Dickens = Good
The Artful Dodger
The Expendables = Bad