Surnames in literature and media: how they shape our perceptions of identity

Surname-based organizations and societies

Surnames in Literature and Media: How They Shape Our Perceptions of Identity

The choice of surnames for fictional characters can have a significant impact on how we perceive their identity. From classic literature to modern media, surnames can convey subtle hints about a character's background, personality, and even their fate. In this article, we explore the role of surnames in shaping our perceptions of fictional characters and examine some of the most iconic examples from literature and media.

Surname Origins: A Window into History

Surnames are more than just a convenience for identification, they offer a window into the history of a family, town, or country. Many surnames come from specific geographic locations, professions, or physical characteristics of individuals. For instance, the surname "Smith" may have originally come from a family of blacksmiths, "Baker" from a family of bakers, or "Green" from an individual with a particularly verdant complexion.

In literature, the characters' surnames are also often used to convey a sense of their cultural and historical backgrounds. Tom Sawyer, for example, has a very American-sounding name, reflecting his origins as a character in Mark Twain's classic novel set in the United States. Characters with names like "Darcy" or "Bennet" in Jane Austen's works have distinctly British names, reflecting their status as members of the British gentry.

Creating a Character's Persona Through Their Surname

Surnames can also give readers clues about a character's personality or fate. In the Harry Potter series, for example, many of the characters' last names are playfully indicative of their personalities. "Draco Malfoy" sounds cold and malicious, fitting his role as a villain, while "Neville Longbottom" sounds like a friendly, approachable character who is more at home in the supporting cast.

Similarly, in Harper Lee's classic novel "To Kill a Mockingbird", the characters' surnames are often used ironically to suggest something about their personalities. The name "Atticus Finch" suggests a man who is principled, steadfast, and always on the side of justice, while names like "Ewell" or "Radley" give hints about the characters' reputations as troublesome or reclusive.

The Power of Nicknames

Nicknames can also have a significant impact on how we perceive a character, and often reflect something about their personality or background. Nicknames can be a way of asserting one's identity or can reflect the way that others see a person. In literature, characters with particularly memorable nicknames often stand out more than those with more generic monikers.

Consider the character of "The Hound" in George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series. The nickname conveys a sense of danger, loyalty, and reliability, all of which are traits that this character embodies throughout the course of the novels. Similarly, the nickname "Scarlett" in Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind" reflects the fiery spirit and determination of the character of Scarlett O'Hara.


In literature and media, surnames can convey a great deal about a character's background, personality, and fate. They are a way for authors and creators to convey subtle clues to readers and viewers, while also providing a window into history and culture. By paying attention to the surnames of fictional characters, we can gain a deeper understanding of their motivations and perspectives, and become more invested in their stories. So next time you read a novel or watch a TV show, pay attention to the surnames that are chosen for the characters and consider what they might reveal about their identities.