Sunday, February 2, 2014


When I speak to elementary school students as a visiting author, we usually create a story together. We talk about setting and description and plot. But first, we give our characters names. I ask them to tell me the name of the evil character in the Harry Potter series, and they shout out, “Voldemort!” I tell them it’s a great bad-guy name. It sounds wicked. “Would it be as scary,” I ask, “if that character’s name was Daisy Dolittle?” It always gets a big laugh from the little folks.

But the point is made. Names matter.

In the literary pantheon, there are great characters, but they don’t always (in my humble opinion) have great names. Holden Caulfield? An unforgettable creation. But the name? Eh. Then again, I’m not even a fan of the name Jay Gatsby.

Some authors, like Ernest Hemingway for instance, didn’t seem to think an unusual name was the key to an outstanding character. Robert Cohn. Nick Adams. Jake Barnes. Meh. On the other hand, Charles Dickens was positively brimming with memorable monikers—Oliver Twist, Uriah Heep, Nicholas Nickleby, Philip Pirrip. For both authors, it was obviously purposeful.

Great character names can come from anywhere, of course. Washington Irving’s Ichabod Crane was almost certainly taken from a real-life military officer of the same name. Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking was named by her nine-year-old daughter (full name: Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Ephraim's Daughter Longstocking). Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot was a combination of names from two other fictional detectives of the time. And Sherlock Holmes? He was supposedly THIS CLOSE to being named Sherringford.

Regardless of origins, let’s celebrate the best of the best—one reader’s list of the 70 finest names in literature:

1. Ebenezer Scrooge (A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens)
2. Atticus Finch (To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee)
3. Holly Golightly (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote)
4. Phileas Fogg (Around the World in 80 Days, Jules Verne)
5. Dr. Fu-Manchu (The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu, Sax Rohmer)
6. Huckleberry Finn (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain)
7. Inigo Montoya (The Princess Bride, William Goldman)
8. Count Dracula (Dracula, Bram Stoker)
9. Forrest Gump (Forrest Gump, Winston Groom)
10. Samneric (Lord of the Flies, William Golding)
11. Long John Silver (Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson)
12. Humbert Humbert (Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov)
13. Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris)

14. Willy Wonka (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl)
15. Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey)
16. Simon Legree (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe)
17. Ponyboy Curtis (The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton)
18. Nicholas Nickleby (Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens)
19. Ichabod Crane (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving)
20. Ignatius Reilly (A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole)
21. Milo Minderbinder (Catch-22, Joseph Heller)
22. Tarzan (Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs)
23. Yuri Zhivago (Dr. Zhivago, Boris Pasternak)
24. Severus Snape (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling)
25. Hercule Poirot (The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie)
26. T.S. Garp (The World According to Garp, John Irving)
27. Mustapha Mond (Brave New World, Aldous Huxley)
28. Eeyore (Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne)

29. Sherlock Holmes (The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle)
30. Bigger Thomas (Native Son, Richard Wright)
31. Dim (A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess)
32. Uriah Heep (David Copperfield, Charles Dickens)
33. Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett)
34. Artemis  Fowl (Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer)
35. Rabbit Engstrom (Rabbit, Run, John Updike)
36. Fudge Hatcher (Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Judy Blume)
37. Beloved (Beloved, Toni Morrison)
38. Binx Bolling (The Moviegoer, Walker Percy)
39. Sebastian Flyte (Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh)
40. Zaphod Beeblebrox (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams)
41. Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Frankenstein, Mary Shelley)
42. Boo Radley (To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee)

43. Pippi Longstocking (Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren)
44. Oliver Twist (Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens)
45. Major Major Major Major (Catch-22, Joseph Heller)
46. Frankie Machine (The Man With the Golden Arm, Nelson Algren)
47. Bucky Wunderlick (Great Jones Street, Don DeLillo)
48. Dr. Henry Jekyll (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson)
49. Edward Hyde (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson)
50. Shug Avery (The Color Purple, Alice Walker)
51. Thorin Oakenshield (The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien)
52. Moby-Dick (Moby-Dick, Herman Melville)
53. Augie March (The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow)
54. Pinocchio (The Adventures of Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi)
55. Scarlett O'Hara (Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell)
56. Veruca Salt (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl)

57. Nero Wolfe (Fer-de-Lance, Rex Stout)
58. Lennie Small (Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck)
59. Albus Dumbledore (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling)
60. Dr. John Dolittle (The Story of Dr. Dolittle, Hugh Lofting)
61. John Yossarian (Catch-22, Joseph Heller)
62. Philip “Pip” Pirrip (Great Expectations, Charles Dickens)
63. Ramona Quimby (Beezus and Ramona, Beverly Cleary)
64. Eustacia Vye (The Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy)
65. V.I. Warshawski (Indemnity Only, Sara Paretsky)
66. Pierce Inverarity (The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon)
67. Piggy (Lord of the Flies, William Golding)
68. Owen Meany (A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving)
69. Robinson Crusoe (Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe)
70. Hal (2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke)


  1. This list could also be titled: 70 BEST POSSIBLE BAND NAMES FROM LITERATURE (and I think a few of these are actually band names!).

    And thankfully what Dickens lacked in brevity, he made up for in some of the best character names in literature.

    This is my favorite of the lists. I think authors who are good at naming characters in stories are those who, thankfully, never grew all the way up...

  2. I might have thrown in - Mike Hammer

  3. Actually, Aimee, a list of bands that borrowed their names from literature is coming down the road -- everything from The Velvet Underground to Supertramp to Veruca Salt.

  4. How could you forget John Watson, Sherlock's best friend and assistant on his cases?

  5. Thanks for chiming in, Carly, but I'm not sure what's so great about the actual NAME John Watson...

  6. My Cinema professor in college observed that "HAL" is, consecutively and alphabetically, one letter off from "IBM". Pretty neat.