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Guest Blogger Pat Martinez: Morphemes and the Creation of Character Names and Words

Please give a warm welcome to today's guest blogger, Pat Martinez. Pat blogs at Once Upon a Time.... Please stop by for a visit when you're done here.


Morphemes and the Creation of Character Names and Words
By Pat Martinez

When you name your characters, are they randomly pulled from your favorite list of friends, children, old loves or relatives? Or do you craft them as carefully as plot and characters?

I found an article by Alleen and Don Nilsen that has caused me to re-think how I name my characters. These educaters take a critical look at the Harry Potter characters and JK Rowling's brilliant or well-thought out name and new word construction. From the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy*: Rowling creates her new words from familiar elements that empower her readers to connect the meanings of the new words with words they already know. She mixes and matches morphemes, a process that happens in natural languages more often than most of us recognize..."

Morphemes are the smallest units of language that have meaning--you are familiar with them-mal, un, non, less... Rowling cleverly uses word familiarity in new ways. She doesn't provide a glossary, but readers are empowered by the little effort it takes to make meaning. This may be in part why reading the Harry Potter series is so enjoyable. A few examples: Professor Dumbledore's Pensieve Bowl. Readers may see the word pensive and connect "thoughtful musing" where others may see "seive" and realize this is how Dumbledore sifts and sorts his experiences. Even though pensieve is a new word, a reader still understands.

Concerning names: Voldemort--literally the French translation is "flight of death." But vol, de, & mort have Latin roots and we are familiar with mort as having to do with death. So right away, a reader feels the blackness of his name.

Draco Malfoy is another name that at first glance sounds evil. We may not know immediately why, but Rowling has played on our senses-Draco--draconian, dracula,and of course Malfoy begins with the morpheme mal-literally in French bad, but a common Latin root used in negative words such as malcontent.

In my middle grade historical novel that takes place in the Paris Lost and Found, the original name of the curator was Monsieur LaCroix, a very suitable French name. But Monsieur LaCroix secretly desires to be a Cabaret comedian. After a thoughtful search, I renamed him Monsieur Rigolo, because the French word rigolo means comedic or funny.

So next time you name a character, consider his character, his temperament and purpose to the story and make it a thoughtful and meaningful choice.

*Nilsen, A., & Nilsen, D.F. (2006, October). Latin Revived: Source-Based Vocabulary Lessons Courtesy of Harry Potter. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 50(2), 128–134. doi: 10.1598/JAAL.50.2.5


Heather Kelly said...

Thanks for this thought-provoking post. There is a lot behind Rowlings names, and it's fun to find the roots.

Sherrie Petersen said...

Great post!
I chose the names for the characters in my WIP so carefully. They all have meanings that relate to the plot and for me it adds an extra layer of depth to the story.

Unknown said...

This is great -- I did this by accident with some of my character names but I'll have to look at the rest. Thanks!

Tana said...

Thanx Pat. I'm naming characters for my new Wp right now and it's quite the challenge. I think I'll give this a shot.

Casey Something said...

This is a great post, Pat! I love it. Thanks again for sending it in.

If anyone is interested in taking a closer look at Rowling's name, I love this website.


Check out the Alphabetical list. I think that's the only one that's set up.

Becca said...

Great thoughts. Sometimes I just pick a name and toss it into a story, but other times I wonder what it would feel like to create a name that would become "real" - and used in the world (like Holden Cauldfield, or Nurse Ratched, or, well, Harry Potter). Thanks for that great post!

Elana Johnson said...

Wow. I'm overwhelmed already. I choose my names based on the nickname I'm going to really use in the book. FAIL.

Thanks, Casey and Pat! :)

Christina Lee said...

Wow- fascinating!! I'd be curious about The Hunger Games names too!I'm struggling to name new characters as we speak! Many thanks!

kathrynjankowski said...

Wonderful post! I've recently changed names in an effort to provoke that innate connection. It's a wonderful challenge.

Jemi Fraser said...

Excellent insights!! I love the way Rowling creates her names for people and creations and spells as well. Good advice :)

Emily said...

Clever post. Names are hard but so important. I was thrilled the day a reader noted that my manuscript's villain's name was "snaky".

Alyssa Kirk said...

I love this post. I always go through a major process of finding the right name for my characters. My family thinks I over do it but now I can show them this post. Hah!