[Delve] How do Korean authors come up with character names?

  • onDecember 22, 2020
  • Vol.50 Winter 2020
  • byKang Young-sook

In this section, members of our editorial board answer questions about Korean literature culled from an open survey from our readers. Touching upon recent trends, historical antecedents, and literary devices, we hope you enjoy examining some deeper aspects of thoughts readers have had about Korean literature.—Ed.



How do Korean authors come up with character names? Do they consider the meaning when naming the characters?


Naming is a very significant factor in character creation. It is the most direct way to provide concreteness and vitality to a character. But creating character names is always a contemplative and hesitant process. In a story, the name of a character is never objective. No matter how common the name may be, there’s always a meaning behind it. And once it’s decided, the name becomes inseparable from the character and works subconsciously in the reader’s mind.

Moreover, the name of a character can serve as a significant factor that reflects the time period of that particular work. For instance, in Kim Yujung’s “Wanderer” (“Sangol nageune”) from the 1930s, the female protagonist is referred to as nageune, “the wanderer.” This wanderer shows up at a village one day, and not much is told about the character. But unlike the common modern-day usage, nageune in this short story refers to a woman. In the
mid-1990s, the pronouns “geu” (he) and “geunyeo” (she) were frequently used in place of character names. The first person pronoun “uri” (we or us) was often used as well. As Korea became a highly industrialized society, the character names in works of fiction became more and more anonymous until only the last names—Kim, Lee, Park—were used. Recently, regular Korean names such as Park Jungchul, Kim Minji, and Lee Bokyung are being used as character names. The expansion of democracy and the development of civil society are reflected in character naming, providing greater significance to each individual, each character.

One crucial thing to consider when naming a character is the rhythm. That lingering feeling after the name is called out—this must be taken into consideration. And more than anything else, the author must like it. It must sound friendly, too, and since it plays the role of notifying the reader that something important has happened, it must sound trustworthy. But oftentimes, in recent works, names are replaced by initials and written merely as P or A. The purpose of this is to eliminate any meaning or prejudice the name might hold. Similarly, there has been a tendency to not clarify where the story is taking place, deliberately avoiding any country or place names. In such cases, there must be an internal inevitability as to establishing the characters as “one-letter beings,” and the author must consider if such an attempt works well with the overall meaning of the story and effectively brings aesthetic changes. In the process of building a linguistic structure called fiction, naming a character is therefore a challenging but important task.


Translated by Susan K


Kang Young-sook
Writer, KLN Editorial Board Member