Character Names (a Lesson from Darth Vader)

I love foreign languages.  I love learning them, speaking them, writing them, and incorporating them into my day-to-day vocabulary.  One of my prized possessions in college was a pocket-sized dictionary that not only told me the meaning of English words, but also Spanish, French, Dutch, German, and Italian.  This dictionary was one of the best portable translators I’d ever had, and often times I’d type in words and look up the translations for fun.

One time I was looking up the translation for “father”.  I typed it into the translator and began receiving its translations in different languages.  For Spanish, it was padre.  For French, it was père.  When I came to Dutch, however, I was surprised at what I found.

The translation for father was “vader”.

Now being the Star Wars nerd that I was, my reaction was simple: “Wait-was George Lucas revealing Darth Vader was Luke’s father all along?!?!?!”  The character naming made sense to me.  If “vader” is Dutch for “father”, then Darth Vader’s name was essentially “Darth Father”.

Regardless of whether George Lucas named Anakin Skywalker “Vader” as a hint towards his connection with Luke is anyone’s guess, but as a writer and student of story, I couldn’t help but be intrigued that Vader’s name revealed a part of his character.  The biggest revelation of his story was that he was Luke Skywalker’s father, and what better way to reveal his character than to have his name be a reflection of who he is?

I’ve heard a lot of writers talk about how they name their characters.  Some take names from people they know (with permission, of course).  Some search the baby name book for ideas.  Some invent their own names, whether widely used or not.  And others give their characters names based on what the name (or word) means.  Which route an author chooses depends on who the author is, and many writers mix and match how they name a character.

When I write stories, I’ll often use a name that just fits with a character.  But ever since my own “Vader” revelation, I found myself looking up meanings before branding my character with a name he or she will be stuck with.  I want the meaning of the character to match the meaning of the name.  But even if I love a name that doesn’t have much of a meaning (or, if the name is invented, no meaning at all), there are a few questions I find myself asking:

  • Does the name reflect my character’s personality or story?
  • If writing about a specific culture, does the name reflect the culture the character is in?
  • If writing about a specific time period, does the name reflect trends of that time (or, if it doesn’t, does that name exist?  Some names weren’t created until later.)
  • Does the name simply sound like it fits the character?