What’s in a name? A lot, apparently!
It’s no secret that writers agonize over what to name their characters. It’s for good reason: a name can make or break how audiences remember a character. It has the potential to be truly iconic. Many authors can’t even begin to write until they’ve given each and every person in their book a name. So how does one even go about this herculean task?
Well, let’s take a dive into how some of the most famous literary characters were named. You’ll be surprised at how many were originally named something else, and how significant their names are to their characters!
1. Hermione Granger
Starting off this list is J.K. Rowling’s beloved witch heroine, Hermione Granger. Hermione was gleaned from the Shakespeare play “The Winter’s Tale,” while Granger is a common surname.
While some characters have names that are metaphors for their character, Hermione’s name speaks more to her parents. Rowling has said of the name: “It just seemed like the sort of name that a pair of professional dentists, who liked to prove how clever they were [would choose] … do you know what I mean?”
Hermione’s original surname was Puckle. Rowling decided against that name because it didn’t fit the character. We’d be inclined to agree!
2. Sherlock Holmes
The most famous detective in the world also has an iconic name. It’s become synonymous with intelligence and wit. According to lore, the author of the Sherlock Holmes series, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, named the character over and over again before settling.
Holmes was very close to being named Sherrinford Hope. However, Doyle’s first wife thought the name was entirely awful and told him to change it, which is when Doyle landed on Holmes.
There are two plausible theories that were neither confirmed nor denied by Doyle regarding the name Sherlock. Sherlock was the name of famed violinist Alfred Sherlock. The other theory has the name originating from the game of cricket, of which Doyle was a huge fan. These two players were thought to inspire the writer into combining the two: Frank Shacklock and Mordecai Sherwin.
3. Holden Caulfield
J.D. Salinger’s quintessential novel of teenage angst and cynicism, The Catcher in the Rye, is narrated by main character Holden Caulfield. Caulfield, a boy who spends the novel lamenting that everything is “phony,” is thought to be one of the most important characters in 20th-century literature.
The legend surrounding the origin of Holden’s name is thought to be tied to cinema. It’s said Salinger got the name from a marquee for the movie Dear Ruth starring William Holden and Joan Caulfield. The name was transposed from the silver screen onto the page.
Galadriel comes from the rich world of Lord of the Rings, written by J.R.R Tolkien. Tolkien, an academic who studied language and philology, famously invented the languages in the beloved books that make up his legendarium. Inspirations for these languages included Old Norse, Middle English, and Latin.
One of the languages spoken by elves, Sindarin, is the source of Galadriel’s name. Tolkien translated her name as “glittering garland,” most likely in reference to her gleaming blonde hair. It’s a name fitting for one of the mightiest and fairest elves in Middle-earth.
5. Bran Stark
Fans of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series assumed nothing of little Bran Stark, whose name is seemingly as simple as his place in the novel. For much of the series, he was plagued with visions and paralysis. However, when you delve into what Bran’s name means, it’s clear he was always destined for greatness in Westeros.
Martin has stated he can’t write about a character until it’s been named, and names have a big significance in the families within the novels. Within the Stark family, which itself means “strong” or “sharp,” there is a Bran for every generation. Brandon the Builder was the founder of House Stark. All hail the king of the six kingdoms!
6. James Bond
Bond has seen countless iterations of his persona in both film and literature, influencing pop culture with his sharp tuxedos and his “shaken, not stirred” drinks. Do you know how 007 got his civilian name?
The origin story is meant to bore you. Ian Fleming, who created the character in 1952, needed a name that was the “simplest, dullest, plainest-sounding name I could find.” Fleming, who was a birdwatcher, took the name of the very real ornithologist James Bond. After meeting Bond and his wife, he decided the “brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon and yet very masculine name” was perfect for the character he was envisioning.
7. Jack Reacher
Another singular agent comes in the form of Jack Reacher, who lives within the pages of more than 23 novels by Lee Child. Some might better recognize Jack Reacher as played by actor Tom Cruise in the series of successful action films.
When asked about the origin of Reacher’s name, Child recounts how a stint of unemployment had him running errands, like going to the supermarket, where he would be asked to reach up high and get things for the elderly. His wife commented he might have a future profession as a “reacher” at the market, and he thought it sounded perfect as a surname. It’s a testament to creativity’s tenacity; it could really strike from the most mundane of events.
8. Holly Golightly
Ever since the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote was published in 1958, the world has been entranced by socialite and all-around charmer Holly Golightly. This fascination was furthered by the 1961 film in which Golightly was played by the effervescent Audrey Hepburn.
However, Holly Golightly was originally named Connie Gustafson. When Capote’s hand-edited manuscripts were auctioned off in 2013, all instances of Connie were scratched out in red and rewritten with Holly. All this transpired right before the novella went to print, suggesting Capote had a sudden change of heart regarding the name of his transcendent heroine.
9. Moby Dick
Like some of the other names on this list, the great sperm whale Moby Dick got a dose of real-life inspiration. Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick in 1851. The famous novel, and one of the greatest pieces of literature, recounts the tale of a whaling ship captain’s quest to exact revenge on a white whale that bit off his leg.
There was a real whale that plagued whalers in the 1830s. This whale, dubbed Mocha Dick, was so named because it was often seen near the island of Mocha in the Pacific Ocean. Dick is a common nickname for those named Richard, also a common name. Melville lifted not only the name but also the tale of the difficult, white sperm whale.
He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has a surprising amount of names, from the simple Tom Riddle to the very famous Voldemort. Voldemort, of course, is the antagonist of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The flair that makes Voldemort roll off the tongue is very intentional.
Rowling took the name Voldemort from the French words vol (“flight”), de (“of”), and mort (“death”). It’s one of the many made-up words and names that populate the series, but it definitely works to conjure up a creepy tone. Rowling has said that she wanted to give You-Know-Who a mundane name (Tom) as a perfect contrast to the sinister-sounding Voldemort.