My question is rather simple. In fact, it's in the title and requires almost no explanation.

We can see throughout literature the use of names and title. For example in Of Mice and Men we can observe that in the duration of the novel Curly's Wife is only referred to as Curly's Wife, clearly showing his ownership of her as well as a few other things. There are other examples (many that I can think of right now are from Of Mice and Men.

  • What can you achieve by naming your character in a way that implies a deeper meaning?

  • What are good ways to do this?

  • What will the readers response to this be? What kind of effect can it have on the reader if done well?

6 Answers 6


I'm not sure that the phrase "Curley's wife" was intended to express possession. Be careful not to view things through a contemporary political lens. (Actually, two points here: don't let contemporary politics color your interpretation, and don't assume that literature was intended to be read in the intensely political way it is read today.) Rather, I think referring to "Curley's wife" was simply a way of distancing him from her and all that she represents: home and family. This is a story of migrant farm workers and as such it is a story of men separated from their families. Not naming Curly's wife expressed that separation. None of these men are ever going to meet Curly's wife. She belongs to a different world from which they are all alienated.

Names express relationships. The same person may be John, Mr Smith, dad, honey, grandpa, uncle John, Sir, Captian, son, or Mary's husband. Each one of those expresses a relationship. That is the principal effect of the names you choose in a story: to express the status and relationship of a charter relative to others. Some authors, Dickens and Rowling come to mind particularly, also used names to suggest character. Thus you know just from hearing their names that Mr. Gradgrind, or Uriah Heap are not going to be pleasant companions.

  • Very interesting points!
    – storbror
    Jun 5, 2017 at 12:45

It is not a simple question. Names can have implications on the character but even more so on the namer. Depending on the actions of named and the depth and intuition of the character some implications can be wild. Take for example Arthur Daley'a wife known only as '"Her indoors". The facts are: she never makes an appearance, he fears her wrath, and she knows everything . . . sounds like God to me.

It can be a hook device. Katlyn's younger sister, Charlie, is nicknamed "Tiddler" even though she's 5'10" and attends college on a basketball scholarship. Katlyn (the narrator) continually promises to tell you (the reader) how Charlie got the name "Tiddler" . . . she never does but the twist is she already did in the first chapter.

There are subconscious echoes of the writer's real life. (I recently discovered that more than 50% of the names female main characters that I have named begin with a hard C.

And of course tbere's the infamous Hannibal Lector. Fun fact: many writers only read things they don't hear them. Just for them: Hannibal Rhymes with Cannibal.

On that note (many don't hear the audio version) of written text. I had a seriously badass, violent female character named "Charlene Temple".

Charlene Temple is a slide-by.

One of the most interesting (probably coincidental) namings is Star Trek's "The Borg". Logically, Borg is derived from "cyborg" half-man/ half machine. But consider their behaviour: they'll ignore others unless they consider them a threat, and are responsible for the expression "Resistance is futile".

Star Trek is a US series. In 70's world tennis was dominated by the US. But from nowhere came a character named Bjorn BORG. He defeated all that came before him. (Resistance was futile). He retired suddenly. In an interview he said, "I started playing tennis for the competition, when there was none - I stopped." (No perceived threats).

Captain James T Kirk and Captain T Hook - really? We know Gene Roddenbury read Peter Pan.

Don't get me started on Peter Parker (Spiderman). What if he was an Italian? . . . maybe we call the superhero Peter Petrelli (Heroes).

My absolute favourite naming coincidence comes from the film "Top Gun" (1986). A film about US military might. It launched the career of US actor TOM CRUISE. Five years later the Gulf war broke out. The US bombarded Iraq with TOMahawk CRUISE missiles = what's up with that?

Tom Cruise is his real name and the missile was created before his rise to fame but - curiouser and curioser.

  • 1
    Very peculiar assessment—made me actually think about things I have not considered before, and what is coincidental and what is not. I might argue the etymology of the word cyborg — I was raised to believe that it derived of the expression cybernetic organism, so half-man-half-machine might be a bit of a narrowing the field—but the rest of the examples are rather enlightening. As for a deadly Charlene Temple—dimply adorable. :-)
    – Lew
    Jun 4, 2017 at 5:05
  • This is cool! Don't get the 'slide-by' example - Shaolin Temple? Is 'slide-by' and expression of something that slips the attention of the reader/viewer? Thanks (:
    – storbror
    Jun 5, 2017 at 12:37
  • Yes. A slide-by is joke that only appeals to select readers. In the example only readers who convert text to audio and are Bruce Lee fans will follow. Many of them are ambiguous. The greatest ever slide-by I've ever caught was in a UK TV advert. (From memory) Two women were discussing the Valentines gifts from their husbands. The first woman was excited; her husband bought her a whole new set of bedroom 'dream' furniture from the advertiser. The second woman (disappointed) declares her husband : "gave her a pearl necklace". It took a few days before it got take off the air.
    – Surtsey
    Jun 5, 2017 at 13:08

The short answer is—any kind of effect.

You can to some point predict the reaction, based on the more or less common pop-culture references, but your choice can easily prove to be a miss, if you put a lot of thought into naming your character, but play it of a more obscure area of reader's expertise—it can be lost in comprehension, and the whole strata of your deep subtext will woosh over the heads of less competent consumers of your craft.

Even shorter answer—if in doubt, don't.

If you have a strong story, it might benefit from adding some whimsical subtext, conveyed through the naming convention you choose to employ, but if the expected understanding of your story depends on the correct interpretation of the said convention, rest assured that there will be many lost souls who will not get it simply because they did not watch Thelma and Louise or have not gotten sick after eating too much of Ben & Jerry's.

What can you achieve by naming your character in a way that implies a deeper meaning?

A deeper meaning. Just be prepared that not everyone will get it. If it is all right with you—no one can tell you what to do.

  • Also, meaningful names can come across as heavy-handed. Jun 14, 2017 at 13:08

In my current WIP, years after losing her husband my protagonist finally meets a new love interest (LI). This LI, as it turns out, also lost his wife years ago.

The LI only refers to his late wife by her name, “Claire.”

The protagonist refers to Claire as “your wife” in dialogue, and thinks of her as “his wife.” The protagonist refers to her own late husband as “my husband.”

The point being that the LI has moved on from his tragedy, whereas the protagonist never did from hers. Remember that the way we name people is a reflection of how we feel about them.

In turn, it becomes a means for writers to influence how their readers view and perceive any given character—not just a way to refer to the subject of a verb.


Okay, this is a really good question, and I may or may not have some information. I generally would take the directed audience's age group and apply something to the character that would appeal to the readers. It's effective when writing a fiction. When Rick Riordan wrote the Lightning Thief, his audience was to teens and pre-teens. What he did to get so popular though, was he appealed to the readers by making the MC very relatable by making him have all of these problems wherever he goes. Like today's youth, they're all ways running from anxiety and other problems.


Remember, names can also throw a reader out of the story if it is difficult to read or pronounce. You want the story to flow, and if you have a name that makes the reader slow down too much you may lose them. You can also end up with varying pronunciations by readers depending on the spelling. Which can cause arguments. Even so, name the characters, places what you like. But keep in mind that not everyone will share you opinion of a good name.

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