The Name Game…once again.

Now I’ve written about names before and the thought we put into choosing appellations for our main characters. The topic has crept up on me once again yet with a slightly different dilemma of sorts this time.

Some of the most memorable literary main characters we know are usually the ones with the most unusual names: Heathcliff, Sherlock, D’artagnon, Atticus, Lestat or any Dickens’ character for that matter. Many will argue that the peculiarity of these names has contributed to these fictional creations becoming legends of literature.

But as a writer have you ever been tempted to christen a character (main or not) after another literary character, especially one with an unusual name that many would recognize?

Many famous authors have done it. Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye mentions three sisters named Miranda, Perdita and Cordelia; many of JK Rowling’s characters have famous literary namesakes-Mrs. Norris(Filch’s cat) was named after a character in Mansfield Park by Jane Austen whereas ‘Hermione’ was also taken from Shakespeare. In Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, there’s a modern character called ‘Clarrissa’. Since the story was about Virginia Woolf and her writing of Mrs. Dalloway, the name ‘Clarrissa’ was clearly referential but I actually thought it was a bit too obvious. Bringing me to another point:  is it lame to make reference to the original namesake in any form or way?

I was looking at a story I had started writing years ago but which I haven’t completed. Reading through it, I had a good laugh when I came upon the introduction of a particular character. He was a policeman and I had dubbed him …’Ichabod.’

(Yes, I’ll give you a second to laugh/muse about this)

(You’re done? May I proceed? Thank you)

Unfortunately my Ichabod looks nothing like this…

Now if you’re one of those who have heard this name before, I’m willing to bet my life that on reading that, your immediate thoughts turned to a certain skull-deficient horseman of popular Dutch-American myth.

It is very difficult to hear the name ‘Ichabod’ and NOT think of Sleepy Hollow. Knowing this, I envisioned a potential reader screaming, “Hey! She stole that from Washington Irving!!!!”

 So I decided to give myself a leg up and point out the obvious by stating in the narrative that (my) Ichabod’s father was a big Irving fan! Is it lame? Should I just give up on this whole malarkey and call my policeman ‘John’ instead?

…but thankfully, not like this dude either.

I would like to state in my defence that the name actually suits my character although I can’t explain why. He looks nothing like Johnny Depp and he certainly doesn’t resemble a skinny, hook-nosed bird!

Of course my opinion alone doesn’t matter, what do you think? Would you get excited if you were reading a modern book and came across the namesake of a famous fictional figure?

And I know I’ve asked this question before in a previous post but how do you writers go about choosing names for your MC? Do you go for the unusual or do you opt for something more ‘common’?

NM 🙂


1. Still from Sleepy Hollow(Tim Burton) taken from

2. Still from Legend of Sleepy Hollow(Disney) taken from

18 thoughts on “The Name Game…once again.

  1. nelle says:

    Good topic.l Naming can be fun and daunting at the same time. I work off intuitive feel. This novel sports commonness in names, twins Tess Sarah and Bess Tarah. The next work uses nicknames, author N.C. Locke is known to friends as ‘Encee’, while Courtney Ellen Sommers is ‘Cee’. No, I’m not addicted to rhymes. 😉

    I wrote a short featuring Jack and Jill, women, both. On the third novel, Cassandhra Asako Corcoran is known as Cassie; her heritage is Irish-Japanese. And in one where I get complete license to pull names out of the air, llhaesa (lie-yay-suh) and Jahrae (Juh-har-ray.)

    Still another has one character using a nickname, Nerfie, and at some point in the story, the reason surfaces.

    Have fun with naming, and if you like it but hesitate, make it work. You can justify a name through the story.

    • Nisha says:

      Tess Sarah and Bess Tarah, ha, that’s brilliant! Ooohh I love Cassie’s full name, it’s so original. I also like the idea of using nicknames. In one of my shorts, the main MC’s go by their nicknames so the readers never know their real names. I did it deliberately.

      You’re right though, naming should be fun and usually is for me. I’m glad you think it’s okay to justify a name- one person on Twitter said it would underestimate the reader to make references to the original namesakes. I don’t think so though, I think it’s the opposite… 🙂

      • nelle says:

        On the contrary, responding to the criticism of you by the twitterer, using a well known name screams ‘story’. Think of it… you meet someone and their name is ‘Mandela Nelson’. Wouldn’t you want to know how their parents made the choice, even if you can guess? And that’s an obvious name. Say your name was Caulfield… curiosity is going to scream inside you to explore it. Heck, when I named our eldest daughter Ryan, the questions and comments queued.

        I love the idea of nicknames only… the main thing with storytelling is you can do what you wish, break usual rules of expectation, etc, so long as you do so to further your plot and the overall reading experience.

        If you use a well known name, make the explanation a cool one, something memorable, a fact that glues in the reader’s mind.

      • Nisha says:

        Yes, I totally agree, you would be doing the reader a disservice by not giving them a reason/explanation, and like I said in reply to August, if you use a famous literary character, you actually generate interest for the original works by making reference to them.

        So what is the story behind Ryan’s name??? 😉

  2. Great post, Nisha! I love coming upon names and other details that relate to another character, time, topic or place. It’s especially cool when the usage isn’t well-known by the masses—feels like a top secret message. 😉 This is one reason I value research so much, from a reading and writing standpoint.

    Hmm… I suddenly have the urge to name someone Oprah! LOL Or maybe I’ll write it backwards to make it secretive… Yep. On my consider-it list.

    • Nisha says:

      I’m glad you like the idea August, and you’re so right, it does give you that special feeling when you read a name/topic/place that’s not well-known but you happen to know the reference anyway. I also just realised that making references to a literary name actually helps generate interest for the original books, encouraging readers to read the novels where the name came from!

      Harpo is an awesome name! That would definitely work! 🙂

  3. Go for it – it”s all intertextuality – two of my characters in Mulgrave Castle – which I will be back on shortly – are called Dante and Byron because the character’s parents are into Literature. I like names which I can associate with when reading a book.

  4. beckyday6 says:

    Well you already know my opinion on this, I think it’s a great idea! 🙂
    TV shows do it all the time, books less so, but using intertextuality usually makes the reader feel more intelligent, they get to feel a little smug about themselves for recognising the connection. It’s a great idea to add some extra enjoyment to a book.
    A book I read recently – The Sky is Everywhere had a main character who loved Wuthering Heights and kept referencing it, and as you know, WH is one of my fave books, so it really added to the enjoyment. 🙂
    I also think it could give a lot more depth to a character. The reader could recognise the cue, think of the original characteristics, and them project them onto your new character, which would automatically give a strong sense of personality.
    Do it.

    P.S. There’s a Disney version of Sleepy Hollow!?!??

    • Nisha says:

      You should definitely read Michelle’s (Loonyliterature) excerpts of Mulgrave Castle on her blog, plenty of references to Heathcliff there, and a great Victorian story to boot! 🙂

      That’s a great way of looking at characterization, Beckster. Using the references to the more famous namesakes to strengthen our own characters. Brilliant. Plus its a great way to pay homage to our favourite heroes/heroines, don’t you think?

      Yes, there’s a Disney version! And a great one too! It stays more true to the original story than Depp’s one and apparently it was banned(??!!) when it first came out but I’m not sure about the details… you can watch the first part here…

      • beckyday6 says:

        Thanks 🙂 Hahaa, that’s pretty cool, I wonder why it was banned, it seems quite a lot of Disney stuff is now. Who knew Disney were such rebels?!

        I’ve got the book for Sleepy Hollow on PDF, but I probably won’t pick it up for a while, because of that very reason – it’s on PDF, which isn’t enjoyable to read. I’ll probably end up just buying the book instead! 🙂

  5. trixfred30 says:

    I’ve got one of the strangest names out there (my real name) but I’m not letting on. Of course its on my email but don’t tell

  6. Martin Shone says:

    I like to try and use a name to fit the character as in my novel the bully is really a softie, so I used Rory Raspberry and Raspberry is a real Devonshire name, and that is where he comes from in the book 🙂

  7. Great post, beautifully written Nisha 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s