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14 March 2014 ·

Naming Story Characters – meanings, tributes and sound play

After all the conferencing and considering the names submitted for two characters in Rescue on Nim’s Island, I’ve been reflecting on the importance of character names, and how we choose them. Because I have to say that I was absolutely blown away by the thought that went in to the entries. I don’t have time to count them, but they filled many pages when I printed them out, and came from Australia, Canada, the UK and USA, both from schools and individuals.  I had a strong sense that most of the entries came from writers, whether child or adult, published or not, they were people who understand the significance and the joy of playing with words. There were many names that really needed a story written for them, even if they didn’t make it into this one.
Some were simply too similar to other new characters in this story. ‘Leona’ for the biologist who loves sea lions would have been perfect, and so would the Lars for the geologist – except that the story already has a Leonora and Lance. In fact Lance was originally Lars, though I can’t divulge now why I decided to change it.
There were names crediting famous scientists, and names that children felt ought to be used by scientists: ‘Pamela is a perfect name usually used by marine biologists,’ or ‘Dr Francis sounds like a smart person’s name to me.’ Whether or not we can all agree on what sounds like a scientist’s name, those are legitimate point. In real life names don’t tell us anything about someone’s intelligence or morals – but fiction is full of subtle hints (or wilful misleading…).
I’m sure there’s probably a relationship between the sharp consonants like K, the number of syllables,or the length of the vowel sounds, as to whether we see the person as sharp or gentle, round or thin. As one young poet said, ‘Raymond: the ra sound reminds me of rocks, a hard, tough name. But it ends gently, soft on the inside.’

There were suggestions based on honouring people they loved, eg ‘Paula because she’s my bus driver.’ That’s legitimate too. If the name fits, why not use it? Similarly, a girl suggested the surname of Swartz as a tribute to Schwartz Bay,  where my 8 year old self saw the tiny island that she then wrote a story about… (No, this girl doesn’t know me personally, she just paid good attention to the FAQ on my website and asked a few questions). I could have easily chosen that name, but conferencing with my editors, we decided it should be something that was meaningful to more people.
One thing I sometimes do when deciding if a name fits is to check the list of most popular baby names for the year they were born, especially if they’re not a character who is meant to stand out in some way. 
And, like many of the entrants, I love playing with meanings. There were many variations on Rock as both first and surname, and various Latin references to sea lions.
Possibly the hardest thing to define is whether the names fit with the tone of the story. That may have been the subconscious factor that influenced our final choices.
So… the names are: Selina Ashburn and Peter Hunterstone. This actually means there are 4 winners, as we ended up mixing and matching.
Selina means moon goddess, but sounds sea-ish. That came from children’s writer Dimity Powell.
Ashburn is the last name of the sea lion trainer who trained the three Selkies in the two films. Thanks to Katie Brock-Medland, one of the animal wranglers who worked with her while Spud, Friday and BJ were filming. Katie’s also shared this picture of Donna with me.
Peter means rock, and Hunterstone – well, isn’t that clever! The girl who thought it up is in Year (Grade) 3 in Rosebud, Australia, and the Peter, with its meaning, came from a Grade 4 boy in Michigan! I love that the full name has been made up by kids on the opposite sides of the world.


  1. Kelly McDonald Wow. great names Wendy. good job Dimity
    March 16, 2014 at 5:04 pm · Reply
  2. DimbutNice After reading this post Wendy, I simply cannot imagine the deliberation and rationale process that went into the final cuts. It truly is fascinating stuff and illustrates not only the importance of choice and getting it right when writing, but the hours that an author gives to this process. Thank you again for your choice and sharing this insight with us all. Dimity
    March 16, 2014 at 5:04 pm · Reply
  3. Wendy Orr Thanks, Dimity and Kelly. It was interesting for me too, as I hadn't broken down my own process in this way before.
    March 16, 2014 at 5:05 pm · Reply
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Wendy Orr is a Canadian-born Australian writer. Her books for children and adults have been published in 27 countries and won awards around the world. Nim’s Island and Nim at Sea have also become feature films, starring Jodie Foster and Abigail Breslin (Nim’s Island) and Bindi Irwin (Return to Nim’s Island.) Her latest book is Cuckoo’s Flight, a companion to the highly acclaimed Bronze Age novels Dragonfly Song and Swallow’s Dance. Read full bio