Writing

Naming Your Characters

Nancy Friedman
5 min readOct 25, 2023

Don’t overlook the story potential in your characters’ names.

Domhnall Gleeson, left, as Caleb Smith and Oscar Isaac as Nathan Bateman in “Ex Machina.” Source: IMDb

When Ex Machina, a feature film about artificial intelligence written and directed by Alex Garland, was released in 2015, reviewers called it a “futuristic shocker” and a “dazzling sci-fi thriller,” praising its sleek design — the film won the Academy Award for visual effects — and sly philosophical underpinnings. Another striking aspect of the movie got less attention: the way its characters’ names foretell their motives and actions.

I recently re-watched Ex Machina. Once again I was impressed by the significance of the characters’ names. And once again I reflected on how and why some fictional characters’ names are more resonant and memorable than others.

Take a look at the three principal characters in Ex Machina. At the center of the action is a bearded tech mogul, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), with delusions of omnipotence. A weedy, whip-smart employee, Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), wins a corporate contest and is helicoptered into Bateman’s remote compound for an experiment: to determine whether Bateman’s creation, a cyborg called Ava (Alicia Vikander), is sufficiently human-like to pass the Turing Test.

The names are ordinary enough. Or are they?

Bateman is perhaps the most transparent. He’s a genius, and vastly wealthy, but the name alludes to something else: He’s a bait man, luring Caleb into a dangerous game. The name’s other homophone, bate, also holds meaning: to hold back, to restrain, as in “waiting with bated breath.” There’s intention behind Nathan, too: Hebrew in origin, the name means “he gave” or “God gave.” Bateman gives — and he holds back as well. (The name of Bateman’s company, Blue Book, is equally layered. It may be a reference to The Blue Book, a collection of notes taken during the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s lectures in 1933 and 1934 that deals primarily with language and meaning. Blue Book may also allude to the fable of the wife-murderer Bluebeard, whose plot is echoed in Ex Machina.)

Smith strikes us with its mundanity. It’s one of the humblest of English surnames; its literal meaning is “a worker in metals.” (Caleb Smith’s metal of choice is, of course, the silicon in computer chips.) As for Caleb, like “Nathan” it comes…

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Nancy Friedman

Writer, name developer, brand consultant, idea-ist, ex-journalist. @fritinancy on Mastodon, Instagram, Bluesky, Threads, and elsewhere.