Naming Your Characters: Using Etymology

I started seriously delving into history outside mythology while doing research for my third novel, Dragon Wingéd, which takes place around 2200 B.C.E. This had an unexpected side effect, making a profound difference on how I approach naming a character.

When writing about the present, thanks to planes and other forms of mass transit, the boundaries on names aren’t as defined. For example, finding someone named Cassandra in England isn’t unheard of, but in the middle of the bronze age, it pretty much was. According to behindthename.com, “Cassandra” is derived from Greek. So, anyone could rightly assume that someone named “Cassandra” from the bronze age would be Greek. She could be English; it’s not impossible, but, yes, highly improbable.

While looking into these name etymologies, I came to realize just how old some of these everyday names really are, and just how many stereotypical English names happen to be Greek. It boggles my mind, especially when you realize how popular these names had to be in order to survive to modern day. There were individuals four thousand years ago named Cassandra, meaning “shining upon man”. Think about this. Most English speakers cannot read Old English (it looks too much like German), and that wasn’t even one thousand years ago. “Cassandra” comes from Greek. Modern Greek has evolved from Koine Greek and its cousin Classical Greek. Before that? Attic. Before that? Mycenaean, which falls under the Hellenic and Indo-European family tree of languages. When you consider how these languages have evolved, we have a word, “Cassandra” that has changed comparatively little. That I could be picked up and dropped in the middle of Ancient Greece and be able to identify a word, even just one word… It’s amazing!

So, the rest of this entry is dedicated to some of my favorite stories behind my characters’ names.

I used to go back and forth between being obsessed with a name’s meaning and how it either defines or add symbolism to my story and using whatever name happens to be handy. On the one hand, I’ve given names to my characters like Kapera. I almost created her character around the name, because I loved it so much. It is of African origin (which is crazy vague, I know) and it means “this child will die.” It’s incredibly depressing, and furthermore, since the character is a foiche Dé, beings that are reincarnated, I appreciated that it was both fitting and ironic. Yes, the foiche Dé do die over and over again, but they are in a state of perpetual life. It’s one of those things my creative writing professor would love because it’s “dripping with meaning”. This name almost created the Wingéd sequel on its own.

On the other hand, I am also prone to putting in place holders for names that never end up getting changed, which is how my favorite character, Angel Dyson, came to be named after my parents’ vacuum cleaner. In my defense, I also loved that vacuum cleaner. I wish I could have taken it with me when I moved out.

The name I get the most questions on will probably always be Friedel, the girl who started it all. And… as much as I love the name and could not imagine that character being named anything else, I frequently regret naming her that. Partially Mostly… Okay. Okay. BECAUSE no one ever pronounces it correctly. Friedel is actually named after the last name of a famous actor, Will Friedle, who pronounces it “fri-DELL”. I changed the spelling because it looked better and to aid in pronunciation, but it didn’t help. The most frequent pronunciation is “FREE-dl” that rhymes with “Tweedle”. And a little part of me dies inside. When I did my rewrite, I seriously considered either changing her name to something more symbolic or thoughtful or changing the spelling to better reflect what I was trying to achieve. I did neither, because she is Friedel. I did eventually look up what her name online, and it is a variant of Friedelinde which means “gentle peace”. It’s actually appropriate for describing the dead, but I lucked out.

I highly suggest that you check out both Behindthename.com and this Indo-European languages tree from Wikipedia, especially the Latin languages.

Do you have a special process when it comes to naming your characters? Do you have a funny story about how one of your characters was named? Leave me a comment!

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