Monday, January 30, 2017

What's in a Name? by Dianne K. Salerni

Shakespeare’s Romeo said that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But I wonder, would a character named Rose have the same personality if the author changed her name to Daisy?

In 2011, when I started planning a story about a secret dayof the week, the protagonist came to me with his name already selected. By him. “I’m Jax,” he said, and since I was toying with the idea of setting the story in a fantasy world, I didn’t object at first. But when I decided to set the story in modern day U.S.A, I thought I needed to change his name. American boys weren’t named Jax. (In 2011, I had never heard of that name.)

The problem was, Jax wouldn’t change his name. Not even to something close, like Jack. Somehow, an entire personality had become attached to that name. Jax was stubborn and had a smart mouth on him, but he was also good-hearted and likeable and loyal to a fault. He was impetuous, prone to making mistakes, but always willing to take responsibility for his actions and make things right. All those things had somehow become uniquely tied to three letters: J-A-X.

(Of course, by the time the book was published, I found myself encountering the name Jax or Jaxon everywhere. So, he was right all along.)

I’m not the only author who’s experienced this name-character connection.  Susan Lynn Meyer reports that after hearing the name September Rose (a friend’s daughter’s friend), she immediately knew she had the name of the MG for her book Skating with the Statue of Liberty. She tells me, “I can't exactly say why, maybe because it is such a vivid and unique name, but the name September Rose (Seppie for short) conjured up to me an African-American girl who is full of confidence, energy, and joie de vivre, even in the face of discrimination. She wants to be a singer and dancer, like her idol Josephine Baker.”

In Diana Peterfreund’s Secret Society Girl series, a character with the code name Poe is eventually revealed to have the real name of James. However, when the protagonist first called him by that name, the author got a surprise. He shouted that nobody called him James; his name was Jamie. “The scene took ME by surprise,” she says. “I didn't even think of trying to change it. He was so certain.”

Another character who chose her own name is Fairday Morrow. In the book, The Secret Files of Fairday Morrowreaders find out that her mother, Pru, grew up in Nantucket. Because her baby daughter’s gray eyes reminded her of the ocean, Pru named her child after a phrase local fishermen said to tourists. Authors Jessica Haight and Stephanie Robinson say that Fairday’s name inspired her character: “Fairday has an even-keeled personality that built up around her name, though we'd say she does have her own style!”

I could share countless other stories of how my characters’ name choices drove the development of their personality, such as my feisty and ever-truthful Verity Boone and Riley Pendare—who in my original story notes was named Wiley, but who changed his name and hijacked his intended role just before I started the first chapter. Rather than recount them all, I’ll leave you with some writing advice from Diana Peterfreund. When it comes to characters’ names, the characters know best.  

“Follow the names,” Diana says. “Always follow the names.”


  1. So interesting about character names and how they take on a life of their own. I love the name Jax, though I haven't met anyone with that name like you have.

  2. Names do say so much about a character! And I love Jax - such a strong name, a heroic name. I adore the book The Secret Files of Fairday Morrow and love the meaning behind Fairday's name :). My MG series main character is named after my son, Joshua, as he inspired the story. But I chose his name in real life as I love multi-syllable names as they as so musical. Names are powerful!

    1. Thanks so much, Donna! We are thrilled you adore The Secret Files of Fairday Morrow! Your son, Joshua, must think it is awesome that he has a character named after him. :)

  3. Excellent post! It's fun to find out the inspiration behind character names. Thank you for sharing the news about how Fairday's name originated. :) ~ Jess & Stephanie

  4. Names can inspire all kinds of feelings and emotions.

  5. Yes, isn't it interesting how insistent characters can be! Love this post :)

  6. I love this post, Dianne! It is SO TRUE! Characters often name themselves or a name may inform the character. Been there. And there is no way to change a name once it becomes who that character is. Thank you so much for sharing this!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!