Character Naming, After the Fact

Jul 16th 2010

Fictional characters are the best-named group on the planet. Their secret, of course, is that they're not named at birth. Their creators have the luxury of knowing who they become before choosing custom-tailored names.

In some cases, the names are chosen even later. Take The Little Mermaid. In Hans Christian Andersen's original tale, the Mermaid had no name at all. But 152 years after her literary birth, Disney bestowed on her the name Ariel.

The recent Tim Burton film that sent Alice back into Wonderland was an extravaganza of after-the-fact-naming. Everyone from the Dormouse to the Red Queen was given new, more or less human names. The choices are occasionally too precious, but mostly spot on. Absolem the Caterpillar and March Hare Thackery Earwicket are standouts. (One naming complaint: the whiffling, burbling beast is a Jabberwock, not a Jabberwocky. Jabberwocky is the poem. As my daughter explains, "it's like Odysseus and the Odyssey.")

Gregory Maguire's Wicked series gave similar name treatment to L. Frank Baum's Oz universe. To my mind choices like Wicked Witch Elphaba Thropp and Cowardly Lion Brrr don't quite hit the mark, but the books' many fans may disagree.

The beauty of all of these post-hoc namings is that they're not exclusive. The source material is in the public domain, and we all have every bit as much right to name the characters as Tim Burton and Gregory Maguire do. Can you improve on their choices -- or think of other classic characters still in search of names?


By Starminer (not verified)
July 16, 2010 9:19 AM

I believe that the name Elphaba was picked in homage to the author of the Oz books...E(L.) FrAnk BAum.

July 16, 2010 9:23 AM

elphaba may not be a favorite, but her nickname, elphie, is pretty darn cute, if you ask me.

July 16, 2010 9:28 AM

Yep, Elphaba was an homage to Baum -- but not a close or literal one. There are dozens of possibilities Maguire could have dreamed up from "Lyman Frank Baum." He carefully shaped the name (and spelling) to fit his notion of a wicked witch name.

FWIW, as an Oz fan I think the first name fits. It's Thropp that leaves me cold.

By Guest (not verified)
July 16, 2010 9:30 AM

Starminer is correct. Maguire chose the name Elphaba as a way to honor Baum with his initials. ELB...EL-FA-BA...Elphaba. I love it. I also love the nickname he chose, Fabala. I also thought it genius that he changed Glinda's name to Galinda.

Choosing character names is so much easier than choosing children's names. If the name doesn't seem to fit your character you just go back and change it. Can't do that (easily) with children.

We did, however, change our son's name when we adopted him. He will always know what his name was, but it meant so much for my husband to have a IV (fourth), so when he came home we changed his name. That's a topic that would interest me.

By Guest (not verified)
July 16, 2010 9:39 AM

Sorry, got that wrong, not ELB, LFB...

Was Thropp their last name? I thought it was a title. Her grandfather/father/sister were the Eminent Thropp. I took that to mean it was akin to King, Earl, Pope, President, etc. Certainly her father Frick had a last name prior to marrying Melena (which, by the way, is a favorite of mine and I feel it's unusable now that it's attached to Elphaba's whore of a mother).

July 16, 2010 9:42 AM

wikipedia says thropp is the last name.

By George Washington (not verified)
July 16, 2010 10:35 AM

George Jetson always seemed more like a "Richard." And his boy, Elroy, would be better named "Chad."

By SaraJ (not verified)
July 16, 2010 10:45 AM

It's always bothered me that the heroine of Daphne duMaurier's "Rebecca" is never identified by her name. She even says it's an unusual name because it's in honor of her father, but you never find out what it is. I've been trying to name her for years.

-- SJ

By Elle (not verified)
July 16, 2010 10:54 AM

One of my favorites growing up was Jane Austin. Love her name choices and characters.

Catherine, Elizabeth, Jane, Charlotte, Edward, Fitzwilliam, Georgiana, Emma, Harriet, Elinor, Maryanne, Margaret, Fanny, John, Robert, Harry, Sophia.

Also have been a huge fan of the name Alice since I was little and loved Alice in Wonderland. I really enjoy the names Burton Bestowed on his characters. Red Queen Iracebeth and White Queen Mirana are both delightful as are Bayard the Hound, and Nivens McTwisp the White Rabbit, and Mallymkun the door mouse. They're unusual and fun to say and fit perfectly with both the mood of the books and the movie!

July 16, 2010 11:25 AM

I've never been a big Alice or Oz fan, book or movie, but I must say my recent experience with this kind of character naming came up when seeing Toy Story 3... My husband and I both fell in love with the little girl introduced in the movie (I think we both secretly thought about our soon to be daughter, who will almost definitely look similarly with the brown hair and hazel eyes, and will hopefully have a similar personality) and were both hoping she'd have an adorably fitting name... weren't too excited by Pixar's choice of "Bonnie." Haha, I think its endearing now on the character, but certainly not what I would have pegged her!

From the last post: 4forme - I like Annabelle June, too! Also, Annabelle being our 2nd runner up for so long, our mn choice was Mae for her. The cute sassy mns fit well with it for me. June probably would have been up there for us but it rhymes with our ln so it was off the list.

Allison - other runners up on our list were Annabelle (as just mentioned, haha), plus Penelope, Susannah, Leah, Clara, and Natalie. Charlotte was another we liked, but I liked Charlie for a future potential boy, so I didn't want to get too close. Now with trying to decide on the mn, I like Annabelle best with Lucy, but we're nervous about using our top 2 favorite names in one kid and not finding anything for future girls! Our other possibilities are Lucy Amelia and Lucy Susannah.

By valerie #2 (not verified)
July 16, 2010 11:26 AM

SaraJ, I was thinking the same thing about the main character of "Rebecca"! It was stated that her name was distinctive and beautiful, and after her father...
I guess my best guesses would be uncommon female names that are clearly derivatives of male names, but still feminine and attractive.

How about something like...
Michaela, Davina, Wilhelmina, Georgiana, Albertine, Philippa, Alvina, Theodora, Bernadine, Daniella, etc?

By valerie #2 (not verified)
July 16, 2010 11:29 AM

Also wanted to add:
Nigella, Glenna, Francisca

July 16, 2010 11:56 AM

@Betsy 2: Speaking of Pixar, I always wondered what adorable little Boo's (Monsters Inc) "real" name was.

July 16, 2010 12:18 PM

Excellent point, what shall we deem her instead of Boo? The other quandary about the Toy Story movies was the toys all always go by their toy name - given by the manufacturer, so Barbie was just Barbie, etc, but I was surprised Andy's sister didn't have multiple Barbies with different names, or that Woody and Buzz didn't run into other Woody and Buzz toys with the same names when they went to the daycare center.

July 16, 2010 12:27 PM

Toni Morrison didn't name Sethe's deceased daughter in "Beloved." I like the fact that she didn't and understand why she chose not to, but I've always wondered what the child's name was (if not Beloved itself).

By hmf not signed in (not verified)
July 16, 2010 12:37 PM

According to Wikipedia, Boo's real name is Mary, after the little girl who voiced her.

Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels, without exception, have wonderful names. Some characters: Horace, Cassius, Flavia, Fabian, Edwin, Rhoda, Hamish, Dudley, Edgar, Matilda, Clemence, Emmeline, Hereward, Camilla, Duncan, Josephine, Harriet, Fulbert, Sabine, Miles, Grant, Agatha, Ada, Regan, Ridly...

And Sex and The City's Mr. Big should never have been given a name.

By val_jean (not verified)
July 16, 2010 12:45 PM

I totally agree. Of course that is part of what makes the book memorable.... this lady has no identity, blah blah blah except living in the shadow of "Rebecca".

By Gee70 (not verified)
July 16, 2010 1:12 PM

Neil Gaiman's Nobody (With the AWESOME nn of Bod) is perhaps my favourite name in all of literature.

Plus he did remind me about the name Silas. (Which I now like quite a bit)

By EVie
July 16, 2010 1:18 PM

Great topic! As a writer, this hits very close to home. One character name that always seemed kind of off to me was Ellen in The Age of Innocence. I'm not sure why - I have a nagging feeling that the name has some sort of significance in the historical context of the novel that I'm missing. It just seems like a very sensible name, whereas the character is supposed to be very wordly and European-ized. Also, I recently started reading The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper, and I'm having a really hard time with the hero being named Natty Bumppo. That's got to be just about the least sexy name ever.

hmf - I totally agree with you about Mr. Big - "John" was a total let-down after the suspense.

Edith Bouvier Beale - from the last thread - oh, I forgot about Marian - that's another one that my DH actually okayed. I also prefer that spelling, and I love the medieval roots and the Maid Marian reference. I tend to waffle on a it bit, though - sometimes I feel it's too 50-year-old librarian. But I'm definitely keeping it on my list.

By Sica
July 16, 2010 2:03 PM

I have always loved the book, The Scarlet Letter, and I loved the evolution of the main character Hester Prynne. I remember many, many years ago sitting in my high school lit class wondering what I would have named her instead.. Having an interest in names, I also liked how the author chose to explain that Hester named her daughter Pearl because she (Pearl) was her one great treasure and she came at such a cost. I thought it was interesting that in one book alone I could both really appreciate the naming of Pearl (within the context of the book, otherwise not a fan) and not like Hester.

By alr not signed in (not verified)
July 16, 2010 3:12 PM

I just wanted to give a quick "hurray" to the choice of Elphaba. As another poster mentioned, Maguire could have honored Baum in numerous ways, but at the heart of the story is a girl who is quickly judged and cast aside as ugly and odd - so what better name than the awkward yet intriguing, harsh yet somehow lyrical name "Elphaba?" I am quite impressed with Maguire's choice!

I've always wondered what Tiger, Piglet, and Owl would be named if not something so obvious.

By SaraJ (not verified)
July 16, 2010 4:25 PM

Valerie#2: That's definitely the right idea. But all those names are relatively familiar; would they earn the description "distinctive and beautiful"? Davina and Nigella seem good candidates. To tell the truth, I always thought Manderly (-ley?) would be perfect. But that's the house's name, of course.

I've heard that DuMaurier couldn't come up with a name she liked, so she just left it blank.

By cheap insurance guru (not verified)
July 16, 2010 6:01 PM

I don't think we'll see many character names from Tim Burton's Alice, or Wicked for that matter.

Besides being a new first name for a familiar character, Disney's Ariel had another thing going for it -- it's a very pretty name :)

Could you imagine naming a little girl Elphalba?

(Apologies if that's you. But seriously, you couldn't have chosen Glenda?)

July 16, 2010 7:11 PM

On this topic, and especially since Marian just came up, my DH has always commented that Marian the Librarian (from the Music Man) and Hannibal the Cannibal (from Silence of the Lambs) are the only literary characters whose names rhyme with their vocation. Now that we have a kid, we also discovered Angelina Ballerina and Dora the Explorer (only a near rhyme). A fun thing to keep an eye out for in character names!

By guest (not verified)
July 16, 2010 7:48 PM

tiffg- amelia bedelia

July 16, 2010 8:05 PM

Sica-I also liked the use of Pearl in the Scarlet Letter.

Goin back to Wizard of Oz, can you really imagine her Aunt yelling out anything but "Dorothy" at the height of the storm?

Alr-I also was wondering about the Winnie the Pooh characters since this thread popped up. Owl=Simon or Tiberius
Roo=spunky boy name??
Pooh=Theodore (but still Teddy is a bit too obvious)

Eeyore is perfect though!

July 16, 2010 8:19 PM

Speaking of cartoon characters, do you (those who are familiar with them) think they are named properly? Backyardigans, Teletubbies, Wonderpets, Max & Ruby?

I personally think Max and Ruby's names are perfect. The Backyardigans don't bother me either. Maggie and the Ferocious Beast was a great show but she always felt like she needed a more bookish/spunky name like Astrid or something. The pig named Hamilton was a great choice. However, what do you name a giant beast (elephant-like w/o trunk) who is yellow with red spots?
Teletubbies seemed appropriate because of the audience they were geared for. Not to get into the controversy over the actual show and personalites, but the names of Laa Laa, Po, Dipsy, and Winky were I believe created to be easy for beginning talkers to say.
And let's not get started talking about Dr Suess characters, though of course knp (I think) referred to Hooper Humperdink in a previous thread!

By cabybake (nli) (not verified)
July 16, 2010 9:05 PM

Wonder Pets- Linny, Tuck and Ming Ming (too). DH and I have a problem that Linny (guinea pig) is supposed to be a girl (revealed when they visited Linny's grandmother at the old rodent's home). She doesn't act/sound/dress like a girl at all. Ming Ming (the duck) wore a bikini top in the Hawaiian episode (or was that Mexico?), but Linny didn't. Tuck being a turtle is a great name (though DH named his turtle Michelle- get it Miss Shell- when he was 11, which I think is a perfect name for a turtle). As for Ming Ming, are ducks associated with Chinese (aside from Peking ducks)?

Yo Gabba Gabba-
* Muno (the orange one from the Kia Sorrento commercial)
* Brobee- the misderable little green one
* Foofa- the pink one who loves flowers
* Toodee- the blue squirrel looking one
* Plex- the yello robot
* DJ Lance Rock- real actor's name is Lance
Of those, Foofa and Plex work the best, IMO.

July 16, 2010 9:29 PM

THANKS cabybake!! (please notice the sarcasm as now I can't get that annoying song out of my head). I so don't care for either show you mentioned because of the music in them. I get that they need to be catchy for the little ones but seriously...I can't wait till school starts and I do not have to listen to those melodies anymore.

As far as the names go, I have always wondered about the gender of cartoon animals anyway. I mean without clothes or names or some other striking characteristic like long hair or eyelashes for example, how do you really know? I guess that's another reason why Teletubbies and Yo Gabba Gabba have non-identifying names. But even with that kind of thing, people put their own spin on things. Foofa seems girl, Toodee, Muno and Plex seem boy.

July 16, 2010 10:24 PM

In the Where the Wild Things Are movie, the monsters were named Carol, Alexander, Judith, Ira, Douglas, KW, and The Bull. What a strange combination of names that is. I would almost say that they're supposed to mimic regular kids on a playground, except the only name that is common nowadays is Alexander.

When one of my cousins was a little boy, we would go to the zoo with him and he would give the animals names like Pollenwaka and Dekahomer. I would have named the monsters something more along those lines, if it's supposed to take place in the kid's imagination.

I remember Edgar Allan Poe stories having some interesting character names. Ones that come to mind are Montresor (which does not at all sound like "monster") and Fortunato (who does not meet a fortunate end) in The Cask of Amantillado. And I always loved the name Lenore from "The Raven," even though everyone else seems to wrinkle their noses at it.

Could I see myself nameing my daughter Elphaba? At the moment, yes. There is a movie version of Wicked in the works at the moment. The name's wider exposure could either make the name more accessable or totally ruin it.

If I'm still comfortable with Elphaba, it would still be mostly for middle name contention. Because if the first child is named Elphaba, then what are the siblings going to be named? Should they all be named after fictional witches? Elphaba, Sirius, Howl, Morgana?

...Mr. Big's name turned out to be John? How long did that take them, one-tenth of a second?

By Yaellie (not verified)
July 16, 2010 11:43 PM

I've always loved that Sleeping Beauty's real name was Briar Rose, it fit her so perfectly!

And in Wicked, I was quite taken by the name Nessarose--apparently, I really like double names where the second name is Rose? Haha

July 17, 2010 2:21 AM

This really is an interesting discussion. zoerhenne - Tiberius for Owl is the perfect! Can't help with the rest, though I'll probably mull it over for the rest of the evening.

Off topic:

I need some help coming up with some girl names for a not yet conceived; maybe next year child. She would have a brother named Finnegan Logan. Logan is a family surname. I cannot for the life of me, find a girl name that feels right.

Names I like but were nixed by my husband:

To give you a further idea of the type of names I am drawn to, here is my list of boy names:

Silas Ulysses(mn)

Anyone have any ideas? We have Irish roots on both sides and my Husband has Bohemia(n) roots as well if that helps at all.

July 17, 2010 2:53 AM

re: Where the Wild Things Are: I loved the names Ira and Carol in that movie. They just made me laugh. Kind of like my neighbor's dog named Eleanor. These like proper old names on wild things. I think the movie (and the names) was not made for kids, but for hipsters.

mantua: with the help of nymbler: freida, elsa, signe, sidonie, petra, elise, claudette, viva, maren, brita, vita, esme, meta, charis

July 17, 2010 5:21 AM

Woo-hoo! I just saw Toy Story 3 and I took a picture of the Pixar "Production Babies" list for you guys. Unfortunately, the right hand column of names was cut off by the projector so I missed some of them. I starred the ones I found most interesting.

Andres Francisco
Ethan Durfey
Henry Eugene
Henry Jakob
Maxwell Houston
Maxwell John
Milo Owen
Nathan Alexander
*Sofia Azure
Zoe Abigail
Zoe Carina

July 17, 2010 6:54 AM

Tirzah, you crack me up! I can picture the usher glimpsing you and thinking you were trying to pirate the movie. Can you imagine trying to explain what you were really up to?! Hilarious.

At any rate, thanks. That's a marvelous list. The prominence of Max(well) is surprising.

July 17, 2010 9:21 AM

Tirzah-Great list. Nice mix of classic and unusual.
Just to mention, school lists will be out in about a month. Woohoo for perusing names!

Mantua-thank you for the compliment. I don't usually entertain names like that for myself so it was even more striking when it popped into my head! As far as your dilemma goes, how about these:
Sabine, Saoirse (someone needs to use it), Cordelia nn Cori, Britta, Darcy, Verena nn Vi(vee), Astrid, Tamsin, Sinead, Siobhan, Freida, Eryn, Sheridan, Raine. I put them together in these combos for fun:
Astrid Marin
Tamsin Iris
Sheridan Raine
Ivy Cordelia
Eryn Siobhan
Darcy Verena

By Guest (not verified)
July 17, 2010 12:45 PM

Tirzah....thanks for the names list from Toy Story 3! Cute idea. :) Your name, by the way, has always been one of my favorites.

By Kern (not verified)
July 17, 2010 12:53 PM

Some recent birth announcements from my coworkers:

Brun0 Th0mas
L0chlan @rcher
C0lin Murr@y
Helena @lice
Sil@s J0seph
Peyt0n @lexandr@
J@ckson D@vid
3Li N@than
E11e [family name]
L@uren P@ige
Kyli3 @nne
Grac3 Mari3

and 2 Lilas, several Maxes, and several Sams.

July 17, 2010 3:17 PM

O/T vent: I was totally put off by Wonder Pets while babysitting my friend's three year old. I'm really not a proponent of having cartoon characters lisp in order to appeal to/sound more like children.

@ Mantua: What about Ingrid? That's really been growing on me lately, probably because I love Ingrid Michaelson (singer).
I think Saoirse is amazing---sounds awful with my "Sh" last name, and is a bit politically contentious... But on the upside, with the growing popularity of the young actress Saoirse Ronan, people hopefully will know how to pronounce it!

By leonie lion (not verified)
July 17, 2010 6:27 PM

Names taken from fictional characters seem to be the go to for my friends who are currently in the baby naming set.

This year there's been a Violet (A Series of Unfortunate Events), two Amelias (one is after Amelia Peabody and the other half after Amelia Earheart and half after Amelia Pond), a Ramona (Ramona Quinnby), and a Basil (The mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler of all places).

I'm about to be joining the baby naming set, but don't have this same impulse to name the kiddo after my favorite fictional character (Honor) or the boy's (Luke).

I like names with boyish/spunky nickname but that are themselves more traditional names. The problem I keep ru running into is that I either like the name or the nickname but not both.

Nickname wise I like:


but I don't like Alexandra, Andrea, Jackelyn, Samantha or Maxine. The closest I've gotten is Theodora nn Theo, but the boy hates it. I also love Caroline and Erin, but neither has a good nickname. Are there full names I'm just not thinking of? Awesome nicknames I missed?

July 17, 2010 9:03 PM

In terms of the "Where the Wild Things Are" monster names, I think that was a bit of an inside joke on the part of Maurice Sendak. I read somewhere that these were the names of his elderly Jewish relatives when he was a kid.

July 17, 2010 9:23 PM

leonie lion-Nearly any nn can be from any name or not at all. It just depends on what you like. Some other ideas of full names and nn's:
just Andi
Cassie=Cassandra or Cassidy
George=Georgina or Georgette
Leo or Nora=Leonora or Leonie (unless that is not usuable)
Joe=Joanna or Josephine
Stevie=Stephanie (as in Stevie Nicks)

By hmf
July 17, 2010 10:09 PM

Regarding character naming: it was nice to hear the name Ariadne in "Inception," the new Christopher Nolan film, but it sure was overdetermined. The Ariadne in the film was a builder of labyrinths! Heavy-handed up the wazoo.

By knp-nli (not verified)
July 17, 2010 11:51 PM

I also thought of Victoria: nns: Vickie, Tori, Toria.

On other news, I will be out of the country for the rest of the week, but when I get back I'd love to read your responses to the name Vera. Do you like it? What are your associations, and most importantly-- how do YOU pronounce it? I think I like it quite a lot.

July 18, 2010 12:54 AM

Sara-no H: Glad to see I'm not alone in my dislike of the Wonder Pets. When it first came out several years back my kids happen to see an episode without me. When I overheard the awful baby talk I banned it from the house.

Speaking of falling for the nickname and then trying to like a formal name to match. I've been loving the nn Annie lately. Somehow Anne doesn't do much for me although style wise it matches with my other girls (Cl@re and K@th@rine). I tried to sell dh on Susannah which sounds so nice with our last name but of course the chorus of "O, Susanna" from him and my 8 year old was awful.

July 18, 2010 3:01 AM

That production babies list is great - I never knew they did that...

Back on the topic of character names, I was fascinated by the characters in Ian McEwan's Atonement: Briony, Cecilia, Leon, Lola, Paul Marshall, etc. Genius naming technique, I thought, considering who the characters are. =)

Not a fan of "Elphaba", but it does suit her as does Glinda/Galinda.

By Guest B (not verified)
July 18, 2010 6:16 AM

mantua - Some thoughts thinking along origin and sound lines and what might sound good with Finnegan/Finn:


Leonie Lion - I love nickname questions, so here goes:

Sam - Samaire, Samara, Psamathe (sam-uh-thee), Samira, Jessame/Jessamine, Winsome
Max - Maxima, Maximilienne

Caroline - Caro, Carly, Callie, Ro, Ollie, Collie, Cole, Caz, Rollie
Erin - Eri/Ari

Erica - Rick, Rika
Theresa - Tess, Tessa, Teri
Dominique - Dom, Domi, Nic
Audrey - Drea, Dree
Josephine - Josie, Jody, Joss, Joey, Fina, Finn, Finnie
Julia/Juliet - Jules, Jilly
Kathleen - Kat
Madeline/Mattia/Maatia - Matty
Rebecca - Beck, Becks, Bex

knp - I pronounce Vera like veer-ah with stress on the first syllable. I like it. I find it stuffy at the same time somehow. My main association is the old coffee crisp commercial with the two old ladies:

"How do you like your coffee?"
"I like my coffee crisp!"
"Ach, Vera, you're no Joan Rivers.."

July 18, 2010 8:40 AM

In addition to Nicole, Nick also could come from Veronica or Monica.

July 18, 2010 9:12 AM

Guest B-Great ideas with Sigourney and Ainsley for sibs for Finn. They do sound good.

knp-I should like Vera as it is my grandmothers name. However, it just sounds old-fashioned and diner to me. Plus the sound of the actual name as I say Veer-ah much like Guest B is jsut odd to me. If said like Vair-ah a bit like Sarah then it only gets slighty better. Veronica or Victoria are better choices for me. Actually my fav V name is Valerie.

By Kern (not verified)
July 18, 2010 9:19 AM

I really like the name Vera. It's got that old-fashioned but current feel in the vein of Hazel, etc. I associate it with the actress Vera Farmiga and pronounce it VEER-uh. Another V name I like a lot is Vivian, though I know Brangelina has kind of put a stamp on that (Vivienne).

Here's another poll for everyone--I'm not seriously picking names yet but DH and I discuss occasionally and he likes Mary-Jane, for his grandmother. I go back and forth--1) is it too much on the fuddy duddy side of old fashioned, and 2) is the MJ pot connotation too much?