Names in Fiction vs. Real Life

I mentioned recently that my husband and I have been watching the TV show Fringe on DVD. I have noticed that in the last couple of weeks, I have found myself growing more fond of the names Peter and Olivia, both of which are names of main characters on the show. I never really disliked these names before, but I didn’t particularly love them either. They were just fine for me. But now I find myself liking them more as I come to like the characters.

But I think I have to be predisposed to like the name somewhat first in order for this phenomena to happen. When I read The Hunger Games, I found myself liking the name Peeta as I liked the character. I have never known a Peeta in my life, but of course it does resemble Peter. But on the other hand, I didn’t find myself growing to like the name Katniss. I think it’s the right fit for Katniss and I went from thinking it was a stupid name at first to an appropriate name for a character, but let’s just say it didn’t hold quite the same charm for me. And it wasn’t like I was going to name a baby Peeta but…  let’s just say there was a period of time where if someone else decided to do it, I wouldn’t have judged them too harshly for it.


It’s interesting to me how our perceptions of names can change due to fictional characters with these names. There are some names that seem type-casted to fit a certain kind of character. I remember my senior year of high school when my yearbook/journalism teacher, whose first name was Chip, lamented that characters named Chip are always some lame sidekick. I have found with my name, Amy, the character is generally pretty self-centered and weak-willed, which makes me sad.

I’m going to throw your writing in the fire and then steal the guy you should have ended up with… (OK, I don’t actually hate Amy in Little Women, but she’s no Jo.)

As someone who is constantly creating new characters in my head, I think about names fairly frequently. Sometimes the idea of a story hits me first, and then I seek out the characters and the names of the characters that seem to fit best. But sometimes, seemingly out of nowhere, a character name just pops into my head that won’t go away and I know I have to write out that character. Their name is sometimes something I might have considered strange just yesterday, but today it is perfect for my character. Sometimes I think of traditional names (Catherine), trendier names (Harper), and sometimes names that I just have no idea where they came from (Noa, for a girl, like Noah without a H… this one happened recently). When I think of the name of a character first, it always feels like a perfect fit when I base everything else around that, even if it’s something I would never name a real-life baby. But I also can’t help but wonder how people reading the story will respond to it. I know I have read books where I felt the character never fit their name. But I suppose we all look at names differently… there’s no way to really control how someone feels about a name.

All this to say… what’s in a name? Does your perception of a name change if you read/watch about a fictional character with that name? Has a fictional character made you like a name more or less than you did before? 

30 Responses to Names in Fiction vs. Real Life

  1. Hmm…well I think unique names stick, because of how different they are, like Katniss and Peeta. But I guess authors need to be careful as it may look as if it was trying too hard at being weird and unique.

    Sometimes the character is just so memorable that you can’t detach them from their name. I guess it works better if the name isn’t too common. So the first thing you think when you hear the name is that character. For me Dylan is the guy from 90210, Rory is the girl in Gilmore Girls and Dorian is the guy in the Picture of Dorian Gray. Since maybe I’m exposed to these names through the characters, it has probably made me like them more than I already did? But I think I still like those names even if I didn’t know those fabulous characters exist. Then an example of a name that I still don’t particularly like…Harry…and still the first thing comes to mind when I hear Harry is Harry Potter. In short I think my liking of the name doesn’t change much.

    • I definitely agree that when it comes to unique names in fiction there is a fine line between it sticking and working and it seem like the author is trying too hard to make it work.

      And I also agree that some names you’re just not going to like no matter what fabulous character has that name, but I do feel like for me, sometimes a great character with a name I do like can lead me to like the name a little more than I did before.

  2. I’ve read books where I thought “what a stupid name” for characters and sometimes it bothers me the whole book through. Other times I begin to get used to it. Katniss is actually one of those examples for me. I thought her name was somewhat ridiculous at first but ended up getting used to it, because it fits her and it fits the world. I still don’t know how I feel about the name Peeta although I am so in love with his character. I found the naming convention overall for the world of the Hunger Games to be interesting, and enjoyed that they weren’t everyday normal North American names. Castor and Pollux I think were my favorites, as far as names went. Cinna, Thresh, and Gale were close second favorites after them, for names.

    • Apparently some of the names, like Caesar and Cinna call back to Roman times, and Panem has several parallels with Rome. I think Suzanne Collins put a lot of thought into the names as she was world building!

      • I believe she did as well. As I was reading I recognized a bunch of the names from history and was mentally congratulating her on how well she fit names to characters.

  3. Love this post because I think about names all the time too! Sometimes odd names become not-so-odd and even really great when you connect with the characters. I thought “Finnick” was kinda weird, but now I could easily see it on a real person because who doesn’t love Finnick? Names can bring so many emotions! Like you said for Amy (I’m sorry you share a good name with a horrible character) and the negative feelings that come with her character.

  4. Funny you bring this up now. Just last evening, my protagonist Frank had met the manager of the local movie theater who for some reason I named Max. He was an older guy who has been running the little theater for years. I struggled with Max as his name thinking since this is a one-off meeting and Max probably wouldn’t be in the story anymore, I could give him an odder name, though it seemed forced to me.

    I know I have to break away from the common Frank, Mike, John, Mary types of names, so plan on Kentrell to soon be entering into the story.

    Not so easy being a ‘God’ all the time and making these decisions.


    • I totally understand the struggle of wanting to have a good variety of names in your story. You don’t want everyone to be a Mary or John, but you don’t everyone’s name too unique either (unless it’s a fantasy world or something where it’s appropriate).

  5. I always wonder about names, just because my name plays such a big role in my life. And even though I’m super protective of my name, I still have other names where I’m like “Ew, really?” But I do think once you have a person to connect to a name, it can definitely impact your view on the name (whether it’s a real person or imaginary). Like Peter. I personally dislike the name Peter, but I think it’s because when I think of the name I think of a very specific set of characteristics that I tend to find fit most Peters I know. But, if it’s a name I haven’t heard before, I sort of just judge it how it sounds, whether weird, stupid, etc. So yeah. It’s strange, because for each person their experience with a name can be different and yet it change to reflect another person’s experience anytime.

    • One time when I met someone and told him my name, he was like, “Well, every Amy I know is crazy, but I’m sure you’re an exception.” Uh… thanks?

  6. What you said about names is really interesting-I think with certain characters that are ingrained in your head, you tend to associate other people with the same name with the fictional character’s characteristics. I find myself doing this a lot with the name Jessica because she was one of the twins from Sweet Valley, but I have friends who have that name that are nothing like Jessica Wakefield lol. I think unique names always stand out. I have a friend and her name is Asher and I love that name. I think it can be a boy’s name as well, but it suits her so well when you take her personality. I think also when you start calling people by their initials or like combing the first two letters of the name (like Sarah Jane) you look at the person differently as well. For example some people have called me SJ because Savindi is too hard to pronounce and I’ve always said it makes me sound like a soldier when I’m anything but one lol. I do think different influences do play a role when it comes to how we associate people in terms of their name. It’s always nice when you’re proven wrong by a person when they have a name that makes you go “wow really. they don’t act like a Jessica”. Great post Amy!

    • I agree that nicknames definitely can have an effect too! There many Catherine’s (and all the different spellings of it), but some of them go by Kate, Katie, Cathy, etc., and the nickname does give a certain perception about the person. Before I was married and was close friends with some other Amy’s, some of my friends called me by my last name; and I didn’t really mind, but it felt a little off to me in some ways, and I always appreciated when someone chose to call me Amy instead. It’s hard to explain the psychology of it all, but being known by one group as one name and another group by another name can make an impact on the dynamics of the group and your perceptions of one another.

  7. Names are definitely important, and I agree with you that sometimes the name ends up with either a positive or negative connotation depending on who it belongs to. (this happens to me in books AND in real life actually… err…) Personally, I’ve always had this love-hate relationship with my name because its unorthodox spelling means that it gets butchered and mispronounced practically every single time I meet someone new. (For the record, I just pronounce it like ‘Paula’ so nothing exciting there haha.) Also, I have never liked the name Katniss and it was always a relief to me when she was called Kat for short… >< Loved this post, Amy! And the bit about Amy from Little Women just cracked me up… I agree, she's no Jo!!

    • I think everyone likes Jo the best! Did Louisa May Alcott do that on purpose, since she is kind of the main character? Inquiring minds want to know…

  8. I definitely think the names are important. I don’t usually bother with them if they’re common, pretty names that I’d probably name my own kid (which I don’t think about, since I’m still a kid myself HAHA), but I do tend to notice them if they’re different, and sound like they’ll remain within books– I’ve never met a real Katniss before, though I’d LOVE to meet J Law 😀 I think it makes a character more unforgettable if he/she has a unique name, like Katniss does, which sounds real pretty to me now 🙂 As long as it isn’t borderline weird (something like Tookie, from Modelland. UGH!), I think it helps make me like a character, even if I don’t really know why, myself XD My own name, Jasmine is generic though, and there’s really only one way to say it, so I can’t get too creative. When people ask me of the origins though, I usually beam with pride when I tell them I was named after a Disney princess. Haha!

    • I do tend to veer towards less traditional names for my characters, but it really does depend. There’s one story I wrote in high school where basically everyone has a normal name, and it’s one I really want to publish one day, but I don’t want to change anyone’s name, even if they are unexciting, just because it’s who they are. I’m more varied now. Though I have also noticed I take more risks with the girls’ names usually than the boys’ names.

      That’s kind of awesome that you’re named after the Disney princess Jasmine! 🙂

  9. Great discussion, and I think you make some interesting observations here. I, on the other hand, am a bit more picky and perhaps snooty when ti comes to names or something. Maybe it’s just the INTJ-logic in me coming out, but I never liked the name Peeta because wtf it sounds like pita and HAHA he’s a baker. Et cetera…

    I’m not sure I’ve noticed myself becoming more fond of names because I fall in love with characters, which actually kind of surprises me. You’ve given me something to ponder here…

    (Also, I like the name Noa for a girl. Very different! I love when stuff like this just pops into our heads and feels right.)

    • Ha ha, I think everyone has wondered about the Pita/baker thing. I wonder if she did that on purpose or realized it after the fact.

      It seriously came from left field, but I’m glad to know someone likes it! I did check a baby name website if it was actually a legit name (not that it matters I suppose, but I thought I would feel better if it was), and it is! As far as I know, I wasn’t aware of that, but maybe I was subconsciously.

  10. I never got over my initial wtf? response to Peeta’s name. It made me think of the way Lois from Family Guy says Peter’s name, with that drawn-out Long Island accent and R-less ending. Sometimes names grow on me, but that one never did.

    • Same, minus the Family Guy association. It looks the way someone with certain accents would pronounce it. I also know a woman who spells her name Gale, so I had trouble with that one as well!

      • I remember telling my husband about the books and that there was a guy named Gale, but it was G-A-L-E not G-A-I-L. I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen it spelled it as Gale anywhere else.

  11. I have never thought about names and the type of characters they normally come with. Well, I have always thought that a main character of a story would often have a more unique names while every other character would have a more generic ones. I have experienced liking a name more because of a character, though 🙂 Peeta is the first example that comes to mind (because of you!).

  12. I tend to relate names to how I feel about a person I know in real life with the same name rather than a person in a book. I like unusual names in books as they tend to stick in my mind and I don’t get them mixed up, handy when you read as much as I do. I get a bit obsessed with how to pronounce them though so I like when we are given a clue in the book about that! I don’t think I’d ever name a child Peeta, seems cruel to me! Love the book boy but I’d hate it for a real boy. Interesting topic 🙂

    • Ha, I wouldn’t actually name a boy Peeta either, for a little while it almost seemed like a cute idea to me. And yes, I also hate it when you have no idea how to pronounce someone’s name!

  13. I always find it hard to pick names when I’m writing! When reading The Hunger Games I thought Katniss was a guy at first! (I realised pretty quickly though!) And I do know someone whose favourite March sister is Amy!

  14. Some names in books are so silly it makes it hard for me to take a character it that sense it does change my perception..especially in a romantic lead!

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