When It Comes to Character Names in Fiction, These Monikers Have Meaning

A character name can be any name, but sometimes it’s a very significant name.

Take Christopher Newman in Henry James’ The American. He’s depicted as seemingly a new type of man — unlike the supposed old type of men in the Europe visited by U.S. citizen Christopher.

In a later novel, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, we have 19th-century character Newland Archer — who lives in the “new land” of the U.S.

The idea for this blog post was suggested by my friend and National Society of Newspaper Columnists colleague Suzette Martinez Standring, who mentioned the Gogol character in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. Gogol’s father gave his son that name after the father’s life was saved in a train accident by a collection of Russian writer Nikolai Gogol’s short stories.

How about Roger Chillingworth of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter? That malevolent husband of Hester Prynne is…chilling.

On a more positive note, the first name of majestic attorney Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird just sounds so…majestic.

And Valancy Stirling of L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle has a character that’s…sterling.

Also, we have the “Plain Jane” trope, embodied by Jane Chapman before she undergoes a change in Liane Moriarty’s superb Big Little Lies (which I read this past week) and the iconic star of  Jane Eyre (though Charlotte Bronte’s novel predates that trope’s origins).

In Wuthering Heights by Charlotte’s sister Emily Bronte, the name Heathcliff has a raw, wild, earthy quality befitting that force-of-nature character.

Then there’s Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, of Walter Mosley’s mystery novels, whose first and last names juxtapose that character’s traits of having a prophetic, almost-biblical sense of justice combined with a relatively casual nature.

And the long-living Lazarus Long in a number of Robert A. Heinlein’s science-fiction works.

How about all the meaningful names in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series? Among them are the spacey/kindhearted Luna Lovegood, the tricky and weird Bellatrix Lestrange, the always-takes-umbrage Dolores Umbridge, the snake-like yet not-snake-like Severus Snape, and the mostly villainous Malfoy family — whose last name alludes to the French term for bad faith.

Then there’s the initials method of giving characters significant names. The semi-autobiographical protagonist in David Copperfield has the same-but-flipped initials of that novel’s author Charles Dickens — who of course also created many colorful/quirky characters with colorful/quirky names such as Ebenezer Scrooge, Uriah Heep, Wilkins Micawber, Martin Chuzzlewit, Betsey Trotwood, Cornelia Blimber, Kit Nubbles, Polly Toodle, Thomas Gradgrind, Fanny Squeers, and Newman Noggs.

Other initials-meaningful protagonists include Edith Wharton’s greedy/materialistic Undine Spragg (same opening letters as the United States) from The Custom of the Country; Jack London’s semi-autobiographical Martin Eden title character (“me,” i.e. London); and John Steinbeck’s righteous/injustice-fighting Jim Casy, the ex-preacher in The Grapes of Wrath with the same initials as Jesus Christ.

What names in literature strike you as being significant to the characters?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, which looks at the death of an historic movie theater and a very much alive development travesty near my local library, is here.