What’s In a Name?

While preparing for a previous Mixed-Up Files post , I told my teenage sons how much I was enjoying reading Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer.  In separate conversations, each son mentioned loving the character “Mulch Diggums.”


Eoin Colfer created a name so memorable that two lizard-brained high schoolers who can’t remember a biology homework assignment or locker combination remembered a secondary character years after reading his books. What other authors have made that kind of impression?

I started asking around and, as the replies came in, I categorized them in My Unscientific Tracy-Kind-of-Way.

AUTHORS MOST CITED: Roald Dahl and Charles Dickens.  As Lorraine Thomas said, “Roald Dahl was a genius with names! Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker?”

Roald Dahl also got a nod for GREATEST-SOUNDING NAME. Karen Schwartz said, “Who could forget Willy Wonka? It’s got alliteration and almost a honk sound.”

The ONLY CHARACTER RECEIVING MULTIPLE VOTES was Because of Winn-Dixie’s Opal Buloni. Both Jennifer Duddy Gill and Jaye Robin Brown gave her a thumbs-up.

Jennifer also remembered Coke and Pepsi McDonald, front-runners in the CHARACTERS WHO ARE ALSO BRAND NAMES category, and lead characters in The Genius Files.

Barbara Baker created a category, MEMORABLE CHARACTERS WHOSE NAMES APPEAR IN THE TITLES, when she mentioned Harriet of Harriet the Spy; Anne of Anne of Green Gables; Emily of Emily of New Moon; and Sophie Hartley of the Sophie Hartley books.

Barbara and Robin Prehn were both impressed by ENTIRE FAMILIES OF CHARACTERS. Robin remembered Nan, Robert, Timothy, and Betsy Linnet of Linnets and Valerians.  Barbara liked Saffy and her siblings: Caddy, Indigo, and Permanent Rose who appear in Saffy’s Angel.

Both Barbara and Robin remembered many character names. Barbara’s list included Clementine, Ramona Quimby, Alfie from The Cartoonist, Cracker Jackson, and Chasing Vermeer’s Calder and Petra.  Robin rattled off Claudia (let’s hear it for Claudia!), Cat from By the Highway Home, Charles Wallace (A Wrinkle in Time), and Fern, despite having only read Charlotte’s Web once. Oddly enough, Robin was the only one who mentioned a J.K. Rowling character (Hermione). No Weasleys, Severus Snape, or Voldemort came up in my poll.

YA author C.K. Kelly Martin doesn’t read much middle-grade but said, “The two fictional names that spring immediately to mind are Dean Moriarty (On the Road) and Garp (The World According to Garp).”  (Confession: My first thought was “Bonky bit Garp. Garp bit Bonky.” Because not only did John Irving create a memorable character name, he wrote a line I’ve quoted for decades.)

C.K. said when she’s coming up with character names she takes into account the ethnicity, age and gender of the character and eyeballs tons of lists. For her, finding the right name “is usually, in the end, a matter of instinct.”

Karen Schwartz picks names for the sound (see GREATEST-SOUNDING NAME) and tries to match the character’s personality. She consults baby name lists to makes sure she’s not dating herself with names from the 70s and 80s.

Preparing this post reminded me that memorable character names can’t be separated from the characters themselves.  Mulch Diggums isn’t just a great-sounding name but also happens to be a dwarf who does lots of excavating. What a unique character.

The same applies to my love for Joey Pigza. And I would guess Robin Prehn remembers Nan, Robert, Timothy, and Betsy Linnet, not because of their fairly commonplace names, but because she cared deeply about their characters.

Adam Rex gave the keynote at my local SCBWI conference and told a funny story about being awake the night before (something to do with worrying about his one pair of pants hanging out his hotel window). Later on I told him that I, too, had suffered insomnia much of the night but had spent time thinking about the Boov, the alien race trying to colonize Earth in The True Meaning of Smekday. Boov.  What a great name. A memorable name. (Turns out it was the phonetic nickname of a college professor.) Adam seemed pleased I was pondering the Boov.

I hope someday readers think about my characters as they try to fall asleep, or maybe even quote from my books. See, not only do my teenaged-sons and I share a love of Mulch Diggums, we invoke Junie B. when someone’s being less-than-nice.

And no one  wants to be called that Meanie Jim.

Tracy Abell no longer uses the white pages to find phone numbers but considers them a great tool for naming characters.

Tracy Abell