Inception: The Naming Game

It is rare for a movie to sweep me off my feet; I can count on one hand the ones that have.  When it happens it always catches me by surprise.  Inception was one of those movies.  Brilliantly written and masterfully executed, it is a movie that will force you to think about reality in a whole new light.

Fear not, I won’t give away any spoilers in this post.

The concept of the film is different from anything I have seen before.  Most of the movie takes place in a created dream world which mirrors the real world. There are those who try to influence this world for gain, by extracting vital information from important people without their knowledge.

But this post isn’t about the story, you’ll have to watch it if you want to know.  This post is about the use of names.  Ages ago in a post titled “What’s in a Name?” I wrote about giving significant names to characters as a way to add depth to the story.  The movie Inception is a great example.

Here is a partial list of characters:

Dom Cobb:  Phonetically, “Cobb” means “dream” (khwab) in Urdu.  Cobb is the lead character and works in the dreamland as an extractor of information.

Mal:  Short for ‘Malorie’, which is derived from the French word ‘malheur’, meaning misfortune or unhappiness. The shorter version ‘mal’ means wrong/bad or evil (when a noun) in French, as well as some other Latin-based languages. Her character is the recently deceased wife of Cobb, whose memories of her interfere with his dreams.

Ariadne: In Greek mythology, was the daughter of King Minos of Crete and his queen, Pasiphaë. She aided Theseus in overcoming the Minotaur by giving him a ball of red fleece thread that she was spinning, so that he could find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. The name is also a reference to Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s setting of the myth for Richard Strauss’s opera Ariadne auf Naxos (1988). The opera is a play within a play, just as the movie is a dream within a dream.  Her role in the movie was to build a maze-like dreamland complicated enough to fool would be pursuers, giving the lead characters an edge.

Yusef:  The Arabic form of “Joseph,” the Biblical figure from Genesis 37-50, who had the gift of interpreting dreams. He was sold out by his brothers to Pharaoh. Through his gift of dream interpretation he helped Pharaoh to prepare for the disaster of the “seven lean years” and was rewarded as a result. The same character is also a Prophet in the Koran.  In the movie Yusef aided  in creating a complicated plan for the climactic dream sequence as well as worked inside the dream.  His actions ultimately saved the lives of the other dreamers.

When writing give thought to the naming of your characters and when possible, give your characters names with meaning.  Chances are, most readers might not catch your cleverness; but if they do, they will thank you for it.


About Jodi

I'm an aspiring novelist working in fantasy and suspense, for now. I also have two pretty awesome blogs! and
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16 Responses to Inception: The Naming Game

  1. Michael Knudsen says:

    I spend a lot more time thinking about names than I should, but I just can’t move forward with a character until I have it just right.

    By the way, Inception was the best movie of the year by far for me, but I could completely do without the last 10 seconds. So not necessary.

  2. My characters came with their names attached, it was as if they just introduce themselves to me as real people. Strange but true 🙂

    • tsuchigari says:

      Not that strange, many of mine come that way also. There are also those that I’ve named on the fly thinking I would go back and find something better, but when I go back I find that the random name I’ve chosen fits.

  3. thethoughtherder says:

    Interesting stuff, adds another level of depth to the writers thinking, to be honest I’d presumed it was Mol as in Molly, but your explantation makes a lot more sense.

    • tsuchigari says:

      Nolan spent years actively writing the story, developing each aspect and refining it until it shined. I thought Mal was a strange choice for a name, I learned later that it was for Malorie – made much more sense.

  4. Names are important in a novel. I especially like using names to add more humor to my funny characters.

  5. Heather says:

    Sometimes names come to you & it is only after they are named that you find out that there was a deeper meaning then you knew. My husband found out the meaning of one of my female character’s names. It was apparently Hebrew based & related to her place in the story she’s in. –I thought I’d made the name up!

    • tsuchigari says:

      What are the chances! I often google my character names, even the made up ones, to make sure I’m not using some foreign swear word or worse. Always good to know.

  6. nrhatch says:

    Thanks for spotlighting the movie and the history of the names used in it! It’s in my Netflix queue.

  7. Using names to personify a character is compelling, but it can lead to problems, in my experience. If you use names that describe a function or feature of the person you run the risk of appearing comical. While that is not always bad–especially if yoiu are writing comedy–it can detract from the impact of the story.

    That said, I try to use names to describe strength for heroes and nafariousness for villains. Guess I’m guilty as charged.

    • tsuchigari says:

      You are most definitely guilty as charged! That said, I didn’t catch it until I had reached the ending chapters of your work in progress. Leave it up to you to write the world’s longest pun.

  8. Many many years ago, I wrote a Novella called ‘Dances with Rabbits’ and the lead character came to me in the middle of the night already named (Honour). The man she fell in love with materialised much later and I could see him very clearly but he did not have a name. As I began to describe him with his paper-thin purple-veined eyelids and ever so pale blue eyes, I conjured his name (Caspar). My brother-in-law and his partner (who have never read the novella or known anything about it) have just had their first child and they named him…Caspar! The world is, indeed, a curious place.

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